Oksana Zabuzhko. The Museum of Abandoned Secrets

March 2014
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Kyiv: Fakt, 2009.

Fourteen years have passed since the publication of Oksana Zabuzhko’s first novel and it appears to me that they did not drift by in vain. Her new book, The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, is a beautiful, more formally sophisticated and artistically refined work, without the ‘entangled wings of Eros’—to use Mykola Shlemkevych’s words. Will it make a stronger public impact? That is a more complicated question.  

The Museum of Abandoned Secrets is a sort of deconstructed family saga-cum-detective novel. The two main characters, a journalist and an antiques dealer, seek to disentangle the intricacies of their families’ and neighbours’ families’ pasts—intricacies tinged with blood, betrayal, loyalty, and steeped in 20th century history: the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the Holodomor, the Thaw, etc. Symbolically, the novel ends in 2004, on the eve of another historically notable moment—the Orange Revolution. Thus, it is about dignity, choice, and idealism—everything that materialized so distinctly in 2004.

The events of the of the book's chapters—or ‘halls’, as Zabuzhko calls them—and its smaller parts, take place in different time periods and are written from different characters' perspectives. These sections are at once stylistically distinct, yet harmoniously aesthetically linked. It is difficult not to notice one exception. The image of the main character, the journalist Daryna Hoshchynska, suffers from excessive conventionality, idealization and a didactic flavour; her speech is noticeably less elegant and stylistically refined. Perhaps it is because the character is overloaded with the numerous conceptualities. Nevertheless, this shortcoming is not enough to seriously spoil one’s reading experience. 

The intricate lace of the plot is what makes the story automatically interesting. The private dimension of monumental history—a theme that Ukrainian literature has only just broached—as well as the detective angle surely play into the hands of any writer. All the plot lines in the massive 832-page text come together and interweave in the end, which at first has an almost comic effect, as they say, like a stereotypical Indian melodrama, but then an understanding, grounded in elemental experience emerges: that in truth, at certain critical life moments, circumstances tend to come together in surprising ways. In this sense, Oksana Zabuzhko’s treatment of the material is even realistic.

The narrative style itself is also quite realistic. The eccentric images and such devices as cinematization are carried out in a highly descriptive way. The text could have been even more realistic, and perhaps more ‘smoothly combed’, if not for Zabuzhko’s peculiar language. The language is not ‘for life’, but for admiration—forgotten and rediscovered speech constructions, astonishing lexical collocations and other whims make the language of the book imaginative and vivid. But even then, the author manages to balance on the fine borderline of readability. 

Finally, the emotional appeal of The Museum of Abandoned Secrets warrants a separate discussion. As other critics have noted, the pathos—sentimental, heroic,  didactic—becomes too oversaturated at times. It can be, however, greatly justified by the general orientation of the novel, emphasized by the author’s allusions to Biblical lukewarmness (“So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Revelation 3:16). Above all, this book is for the emotional, passionate and, probably, the un-skeptical. Other readers, I suspect, are unlikely to be moved by Zabuzhko’s trademark temperament.

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