Melville said, “To produce a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme.” Oksana Zabuzhko took for her theme the history of Ukraine from World War II to 2004 (when the “now” sections of the novel are set) as reflected through the life and thoughts of her central character, a journalist named Daryna Goshchynska born in 1965 and trying to find out as much as she can about a resistance fighter who died not long after the war. This could easily have gone badly wrong; the historical elements could have been didactic (as in the less gripping parts of War and Peace) or simple-mindedly nationalistic, the tying of the historical to the personal could have been awkwardly done, the characters could be cardboard figures created purely to illustrate the author’s ideas. None of this is the case. The Museum of Abandoned Secrets justifies its length (almost 700 pages in translation) and ambition with a mix of elements that are convincing in isolation and when mixed together produce a story as complex and unforgettable as any I’ve read in a long time.
This is especially impressive because as far as my ignorant mind was concerned, it came out of nowhere. I knew little about Ukrainian history and nothing about Ukrainian literature beyond the name of Taras Shevchenko. I couldn’t have named a Ukrainian novelist to save my life (one who wrote in Ukrainian, that is—Gogol, of course,wrote in Russian). I started the book (sent to me by the good people at AmazonCrossing) out of curiosity, to see what a Ukrainian novel was like; I had no idea whether I would even finish it. Within thirty pages, after reading about the fate of Daryna’s father (“I was the only evidence that the man had ever existed on this planet”), I was hooked. The convincing first-person voice, moving from one thought to another, from memory to immediate experience, in a vital, eloquent, and earthy way (profanity is frequently and expertly deployed) kept me riveted. I was momentarily disconcerted when the point of view shifted to her lover Adrian, and even more so when his dreams were used as the basis for the wartime elements of the novel, but it turned out she can do a male viewpoint just as convincingly, and the dreams, which might seem an intrusive element of magical realism, do the job well—better, I think, than simply jumping back and forth between past and present (which doesn’t respect the essential mystery of the past) or having the past presented through the memories of a very old person (which would lessen its impact and involve all sorts of distracting “Let me see now, was it … would you like some more tea?” business).
The novel ranges from wartime Lviv to twenty-first century Kiev (making me want to visit both cities), it deals with female friendship and male-female relations (there’s lots of steamy sex) and wartime horror (a primary focus is the hopeless armed resistance against Soviet occupation for some years after the end of the war, something most non-Ukrainian readers, like me, will know nothing about) and the violence and corruption of newly independent Ukraine; it’s a mix of thriller and love story and war story and historical novel, with plot elements cleverly brought in from unexpected sources; but what really makes it work is its strong backbone, a passionate need to bring past and present together in a way that makes sense of individual lives. Here’s a passage that expresses this well:
But Goddammit, shouldn’t someone make it her work to find a story in Vlada’s life? You can’t just let it break and scatter like a string of pearls from a torn thread, can you? No human life should scatter like that, because it would mean that no life was worth anything, not anyone’s; if that’s the way it is, then why are we all still taking up space on the planet?
Again, this taste of insoluble sorrow on my lips—the same as three years ago—and tomorrow the hungover heartburn will parch my lips just like it did then—soda and salt. And this recasting, three years later, of the same plot with different actors in the original roles, strikes me, for some reason, as something incredibly significant, filled with an all but mystical meaning. Lord, what if our whole lives are made up, without us ever noticing, of precisely such repetitions, like a geometric pattern, and that’s where the answer is—the main secret locked in every human life?
I could go on for a long time pointing out excellences, but I’ll just say this novel is more than worth the time it will take to read it, and at $8.97 ($4.99 for the Kindle edition), it’s a downright steal.