The eight destination of my summer reading challenge, Around Europe in 14 Books, is Ukraine.
I was at a loss about which book to choose as, on the international scene, Ukrainian books are generally overshadowed by Russian ones. On my Goodreads To-Read list, I had saved a novel called The Museum of Abandoned Secrets by Oksana Zabuzhko, but its 700+ page count deterred me from choosing it.
Luckily my friend suggested another Zabuzhko novel called Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex. This book is not even 200 pages, however, it was still difficult to read. You’ll understand why if you go on and read my review below.
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Around Europe in 14 Books – #8: Ukraine
Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex by Oksana Zabuzhko
Original name: Польові дослідження з українського сексу (Ukranian)
Author: Oksana Zabuzhko
Translator: Halyna Hryn
Edition: 2011 (Kindle Edition)
Genre: women’s fiction, literary fiction, feminism
Location: Ukraine / USA
My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex became an international phenomenon when it shot to number one on the Ukrainian bestseller list and remained there throughout the 1990s. The novel is narrated in first-person streams of thought by a sharp-tongued poet with an irreverently honest voice. She is visiting professor of Slavic studies at Harvard and her exposure to American values and behaviors conspires with her yearning to break free from Ukrainian conventions. In her despair over a recently ended affair, she turns her attention to the details of her lover’s abusive behavior. In detailing the power her Ukrainian lover wielded over her, and in admitting the underlying reasons for her attraction to him, she begins to see the chains that have defined her as a Ukrainian woman – and in doing so, exposes and calls into question her country’s culture of fear and repression at the very time that it wrestled its way toward independence.
This 1996 debut novel from Zabuzhko is extremely remarkable in its themes and – most of all – in its presentation. While the general themes are obvious, the narration is multi-layered. In the end, everything comes together perfectly. It’s like a stretched coil that returns to its original form once you let it go.
The overall theme of the novel is identity, which is then further broken down. The first focus is on the identity as a woman. The narrator and protagonist of the novel is Oksana, who has a lot in common with Zabuzhko, as she’s a poet, a teacher and an intellectual who has spent time in the States.
She recounts a major occurrence in her life: her tumultuous love affair with a troubled artist named Mykola. Their relationship turns out to be emotionally and sexually difficult. The narrator dwells for a long time upon the abusive sexual part of the story and her submissive position within it. She has resisted for an indeterminate period, even when her feminine sixth sense had at once warned her of something inherently wrong or evil in her lover. She’s adamant to tell it how it is, therefore the tone is harsh.
This submissiveness, this mental and physical rape, is extended to the entire female gender and, consequently, a parallel is drawn between being a submissive woman and being Ukrainian. Ukraine has a tormented history and, independence-wise, it is still a baby nation. It is intrinsically tied to Russia but at some point, the area was under different foreign rulers, such as Germany and Poland. Naturally, this has led to an identity crisis but has also opened the doors wide to nationalist sentiments. However, in terms of language and literature – two important factors for any national identity – Ukraine is still under-developed. The Ukrainian language and literature are there but barely recognised, even by Ukrainians themselves. Hence:
the Ukrainian choice is a choice between nonexistence and an existence that kills you, and that all of our hapless literature is merely a cry of someone pinned down by a beam in a building after an earthquake— I’m here! I’m still alive!— but, unfortunately, the rescue teams are taking their time and on your own— how the hell are you supposed to get out?
The themes are complex but not impossible to understand. The marriage between the oppression of the woman and the oppression of a nation is appropriate. It is no wonder that Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex is considered as the most important of post-Soviet Ukrainian literature, but has also divided and shocked critics.
What makes it a complicated read is Zabuzhko’s narrative style. Having no chapters, the narration is in a stream-of-consciousness style, meaning that it imitates the thought train that goes through one’s mind. This narrative device was made famous thanks to James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, among others. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good experience with this narrative mode; in fact, I had abandoned Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway after having successfully finished Orlando.
Having large chunks to read, with no full stop in sight, is tough. Several ideas or separate events conflate together, differentiated by brackets and tied together by several dashes. It requires a good dose of concentration in order to grasp every idea and to read the long series of clauses in a way that makes sense. This narrative mode has probably uncovered my weak attention span, as I often had to pause and re-read parts to fully understand the flow.
Given that the author and the narrator are poets, there are inevitably poetic extracts weaved within the narration. However, poetry is not only in verses. The narrative itself, with its ebbs and flows, is poetic. The numerous dashes have also reminded me of poetry – the last time I have seen so many dashes, in fact, was when I read Emily Dickinson.
There is also no linear plot. The account of the narrator’s love story makes up the majority of the novel and it is displayed in the form of a public speech given by the narrator, as she’s presenting the results of her research (hence the ‘fieldwork’ in the book’s title – the woman’s life is the subject of her own research). This framework, though, is not immediately clear because the narration jumps from the storytelling to further flashbacks to personal musings. Likewise, the narrative voice itself jumps from the first to the second to the third person. This shows the narrator’s fragmented self, as she goes deeper and deeper to extricate what is in her psyche.
Despite this singular style, which makes the novel not immediate at all, I liked the subjects that were tackled. I particularly loved the narration of the abusive love story, it is hard-hitting. I also realised that even the issue with the Ukrainian national identity, although personal and unique to that particular country, can be relatable. It is no different than Malta’s situation during the 20th century – a small country coming from a long series of foreign rule, trying to find its identity through the ever-developing Maltese linguistic and literary scene during the British colonialist period.
Therefore, Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex is no easy read. It definitely shouldn’t be read for fun, as it demands an attentive close reading and an open mind. If you are interested in women’s writing, then this Oksana Zabuzhko novel is a must-read, but I would also suggest it to readers who are passionate about diverse narrative techniques. As for me, I hope that I can re-read it someday because I am sure that I will appreciate it even more.