Iza Chruslińska. The Ukrainian Palimpsest: Oksana Zabuzhko in Conversation with Iza Chruslinska

December 2014
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Translation from Polish by Dzvenyslava Matiyash, edited by Ivan Andrusiak and Oksana Zabuzhko.
Kyiv: Komora, 2014.

The most important fact about this 400-page long interview with Oksana Zabuzhko is its publication per se. In the introduction to the publication, Oksana Zabuzko states that “coming back – that is, being translated into the Ukrainian language -  <….> to Ukrainian readers, who, after all, are her main heroes,  <…> is indispensable and unavoidable. Otherwise it would be like talking about them behind their backs.” Though it`s hard to imagine that authors of other ethnic background who have not suffered from centuries of deprivations (e. g. British and French) would see this in the same way. “Comeback” of material that was created for “export” is more likely to notify of the troubles “at home.” Annotations in the text support this theory: while at first they seem a mere formality, they later turn into unnecessary pedantism. In the original Polish edition (2013, published by Kollegium Europy Wschodniej [Collegium of Eastern Europe]) that kind of encyclopedic notes are indisputably necessary. However, the text of Zabuzhko’s interview is more an overflowing river than a text: it is, in fact, an encyclopedia of Ukraine, a tale, according to Oksana Zabuzhko, “about our ‘everything-at-once,’ our ‘all-in-one’.” There is no doubt that Polish readers need explanations about Ukrainian Galician Army, Symon Petliura and Solomia Pavlychko. The fact that annotations stayed in the Ukrainian edition may speak not only to the consistency of the publishers (all in all, Polish figures and occurrences were carefully referenced, too, as well as figures mentioned out of Ukrainian and Polish context – for example, Henry Miller). Wouldn’t many Ukrainian readers need such annotations as well, would they? This book may be recommended to them as an “introduction to Ukrainian Studies,” especially because in her conversations with Iza Chruslińska Oksana Zabuzhko expresses her position towards such unknowing Ukrainians much more tolerantly than in her interviews and public addresses given at home, and now and again in her works.

This conversation is thus double-edged: some of the annotations are needless for Ukrainians, but useful for Poles. For instance, mentioning Mykhailo Starytsky’s comedy Chasing Two Hares may seem meaningless to Polish readers, but will be a good bait for Zabuzhko’s compatriots who will jump at it remembering its Soviet adaptation. The first of the 16 chapters brings the reader into the free manner of this slowly flowing conversation with the story of Oksana Zabuzhko’s two grandfathers who on the same date – January 22, 1919, the day, when the Unification Act between the Ukrainian People's Republic and the West Ukrainian People's Republic was signed – appear in the same place: St. Sophia Square in Kyiv. This is also when the reader realizes what to expect from this interview – it is meant to be a piece of epic literature. This entirely cinematographic plot propels further narration, and the fact that the next bridge in the story originates from an actual film is unsurprising: Oksana Zabuzhko quotes from Arsenal by Oleksandr Dovzhenko.

Hardly consciously, yet quite effectively Oxana Zabuzhko employs this method to engross her readers, in a way that is similar to the emotional involvement, in order to achieve the same kind of “immersion” that happens with viewers in the darkness of a cinema. And then she overturns their most cherished notions (for instance, those of Mikhail Bulgakov whom so many Ukrainians hold dear). Another method of elevating a simple conversation to something bigger, to “everything-at-once” is interlacing national history of Ukraine with her private family stories (a tested and reliable means that, in fact, uses a small private revelation to buy the reader’s acceptance of a large historical narrative). This kind of a private narration helps Oksana Zabuzhko keep her reader’s attention, while she introduces them to exotic contexts and overcomes the barriers of stereotypes (for instance, those of the post-war Western Ukraine – about which each of the book’s intended audiences has their own bias).

Readers who simply enjoy Oksana Zabuzhko’s work will be grateful for tales about her childhood and adolescence, stages of intellectual biography, as well as for a “guidebook” to her writings: it includes everything, from research on Ivan Franko to miscellanea of correspondence with Yurii Shevelov (he is one of the main heroes of this “book of conversations,” too). Some discussions branch off not from her large works, but often from her essays.

Yet various digressions could themselves serve as a discussion topic. One example Zabuzhko uses certainly takes us aback: apparently, the print run of Tamara Hundorova’s first edition of Post-Chernobyl Library. Ukrainian Literary Postmodernism amounted to only 500 copies (in actuality, the print run of the 2010 edition consisted of 1000 copies, and the supplemented 2013 edition had a print run of 1500). Zabuzhko`s dynamical way of “sawing together” the past and the present is capable of keeping every reader engaged, even a skeptical one. In this, too, the book is of two edges: directed to readers who are interested in Ukraine, as well as to those who take primary interest in Oksana Zabuzhko.

Translated from Ukrainian by Oleksandra Daruha.

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka

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