The premise of this novel – a journalist begins to research a mystery concerning past events – might seem familiar to readers who enjoy historical investigations. One of the delightful things about Zabuzhko’s novel is that she both fulfils this expectation and pushes it to a point of detonation. What are the constitutive parts of such an exploration? What are the material conditions that allow someone to access historical information? What kind of personal journey is needed for the process of investigation to begin? Above all, what strategies of narrative or documentation are available to make this journey interesting for a reader?
Zabuzhko delves deeply into the problematics of collective and individual memories in a specifically localised moment – the post-WW2 decades in Ukraine from the perspective of 2003 – and raises new questions: what could be the satisfying conclusion to such an investigation when the information cannot be recovered? What happens if the archives have been destroyed – for political reasons, through carelessness, or through greed because someone was willing to pay for them and the caretakers considered them worthless? What kinds of stories can be told when the records simply do not exist? The novel does not offer easy answers, but there are routes suggested through creative mediums – that is, through fantastic and speculative literary means. And the lack of solutions in no way detracts from the pressing questions prompted by stories remaining untold, needing to be told and needing to be known.
Stylistically, the novel offers a wondrous richness through a plurality of voices and perspectives. A lesser writer might have limited themselves to first- and third-person narratives, assigned to different characters, but Zabuzhko is more daring and more interesting. We have a first-person stream of consciousness; a (different) first person telling a story; a close third-person perspective (from a character who was previously first person) narrating a conversation; and a script-style dialogue. Each perspective leans on word choice and sentence structure that is appropriate for that perspective. There is a diversity of textures, moods, speeds – from zooming into a visceral bodily experience to zooming out to a cityscape from fifty years earlier. Nina Shevchuk-Murray’s translation allows Zabuzhko’s language choices to bloom in this richly textured work, with innovative use of geographically varied anglophone expressions – a wonderful example of a translator who aims for international and intelligible English rather than a specific national audience.
Reading in 2022 a book about Ukraine in 2003 requires an attentive awareness of developments in geopolitical reality, from Russia’s aggression since 2014, to the current war, to changes in internal Ukrainian politics. There is a chilling moment when a politician explains to a journalist that the world is no longer run by elected governments but by corporations; specifically, by Russian oligarchs who have forced the world to rely on their oil and gas. Gazprom is named. What might have seemed outlandish fearmongering in 2003 is now our accepted reality.
Reviewed by Jennifer Sarha
THE MUSEUM OF ABANDONED SECRETS
by Oksana Zabuzhko
translated by Nina Shevchuk-Murray
Published by Amazon Publishing (2012)
January 2023 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.
Jennifer Sarha is a Finnish scholar and writer based in Luxembourg. In addition to an unmentionable day job, she spends her time writing about the historiography of French Revolutions and studying all the languages in the world. Her Twitter handle is @necverbum
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