‘I am gnawing on this thought until it has no more taste, just so that it would stop gnawing me.’
Oksana Zabuzhko is a major cultural figure in Ukraine: a novelist, a cultural critic, and above all a poet. Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex was published in Ukrainian in 1996, and the (excellent) English translation by Halyna Hryn dates from 2011. It has so far been translated into fifteen languages. At the time of publication, it was considered provocative and controversial in its criticism of traditional gender relations. Reading the novel twenty-six years later, I can report that its daring has not diminished in power.
It is radical already to offer an investigation into the sexual practices of a woman; to look – sometimes with clinical detachment, sometimes rueful amusement – at the position of a woman and its unvoiced expectations; to consider the urges of bodies without romanticising them; to dissect the romanticising that nevertheless gets done; and this with as much cynicism as the topic deserves. Her observations veer stylistically between poetic and analytical, always with an imperative to communicate, and always deeply funny.
Perhaps even more radical – and more remarkable for readers approaching this text in English – are the formal and stylistic innovations: sentences that frolic, running to a punchline that leaves you briefly staggering before running off again; the constant assessment of the experience of reality, via a thinking mind that dissects, and then dissolves into poetics in a rush that leaves your brain tingling. Zabuzhko also does something wonderful with metaphors; jumping from thought to thought both linguistically and conceptually. She inserts poetry into the prose, which changes the mode of communication – creates a pause then moves from poetic prose to a discrete poetic object, which carries the weight of its form and the traditions of such forms. Inserted into her ongoing investigation of reality, these poems offer alternative approaches to the question under discussion. They serve the debate but also declare: here is my poem. Or perhaps, considering that the speaking voice of the novel is constantly alternating between ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘she’ – a dialogue between the self who is speaking and the self who is being addressed – Zabuzhko is also telling herself: here is your poem, you did this and it is pretty great – just look at it, it’s a banger. Compared to the expectation that women should not think too highly of themselves, this is also rather radical.
This self-fashioning through literary engagement links to another question repeatedly addressed in the book: the Ukrainian language as a home, and how the language inhabits societal traumas, grievances, and bad and good habits. It also connects to the pull on the self of recent and not-so-recent history, and the effect of that pull on communities and families – a shared engagement with the past from which one cannot opt out. Zabuzhko is unapologetic about making this the meat of the story, and refuses bland universalism and any worry of disturbing the reader with new information and opinions.
I read the book twice this year – in March, in a first rush to educate myself on Ukrainian literature, and again in September, to remind myself of what made it so dazzling. In both cases, it had the remarkable effect of making most other novels I have read this year seem overcautious and too well-mannered.
Reviewed by Jennifer Sarha
FIELDWORK IN UKRAINIAN SEX
By Oksana Zabuzhko,
Translated by Halyna Hryn
Published by Amazon Crossing (2011)
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Jennifer Sarha leads an exciting double life: a researcher of obscure European history by night, a wrangler of research funding applications by day. She is attempting to learn all the languages in the world and reviews regularly for the European Literature Network.
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