November 2012

Daniel Shvartsman


The Museum of Abandoned Secrets by Oksana Zabuzhko, translated by Nina Shevchuck-Murray

Early in The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, star television journalist Daryna Goschynka interviews her dearest friend, a famous modern artist. The artist is describing her recent hit show, Secrets, and does so by recalling an old Soviet game girls played in the 1960s and '70s, wherein they would bury trinkets or toys in their yards, hiding them with dirt and colorful foreign candy wrappers, keeping the location a secret. "A secret's main purpose," she says, "was not to be beautiful but to be something that no one, except its creators, had the right to see."

Oksana Zabuzhko's mammoth novel deals primarily with unpacking that statement and its implications: how secrets manifest, who owns them, who has the right to uncover them, and what happens when they come to light. These secrets are born of personal traumas, misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and, especially, of the oppressive times Ukrainians suffered through in the twentieth century and the daily dilemma they faced: to defy the "hesitation to act decisively in sight of triumphing evilness."

Daryna stumbles on this quotation in a book of her late father's (it's from a criticism of Hamlet). Next to it, her father had scrawled "this!!!" In the basement of a historical archive building, she finds a photo of five Ukrainian Insurgent Army members, one of the five a woman with a "barely discernible curve" of a smile, beautiful and heroic. These two discoveries propel Daryna through the plot, which jumps between the Partisan movement in WWII-era Lviv and an equally tumultuous pre-Orange Revolution Kyiv.

The smiling fighter is Olena Dovganina, whose grand nephew Adrian, an antiques dealer, enters Daryna's life, first as a link to the woman she wants to make a movie about, and then as her lover. It's through his dreams that we see the partisan plot unfold, as Olena and her gang fend off first the Germans and then the triumphal Soviets. Meanwhile, Daryna's television channel is bought out by unnamed quasi-mafiosos cum governmental forces, and her weekly magazine profiling unknown heroes (Diogenes' Lantern) is cancelled, with plans for a new pageant show that fronts for human trafficking to take its place. And her aforementioned dear friend has died in a car crash, five of her paintings mysteriously missing, and her partner, an important opposition politician, doing little to preserve the flame.

It's an intricate plot, and Zabuzhko works through it well. For the first three-fourths of the book, she both builds the tension and pounds on her two themes, resistance and secrets. She writes with an unsparing harshness that suits the historical reality: men are described as cowardly, overweight, lust-crazed pigs; women as whores with porn-star bangs and g-string-baring micro skirts; and piles of dead bodies are liable to stack up so high that the dam crumbles under their weight. Daryna's bravest moment comes when she defies a former friend, even under the threat of blackmail exposing her as a mafioso doll; her lowest when she viciously outs one of Adrian's consultants as a KGB informer.

With all the ground she covers, Zabuzhko does hit potholes. She is fond of writing one-sided dialogues, which get irritating. Some of the plot devices are thin, one rant especially feeling like an excuse for the author to lambast modern-day Ukraine. The metaphysics of Adrian's dreams are (perhaps purposely) fuzzy, and not wholly convincing for it. Adrian himself, for that matter, isn't a very convincing character; it's nice to see a genuinely good male character, but he has little depth, and the one false note he strikes with his scantily clad secretary screeches against the shallow harmony he evokes otherwise.

Ultimately, though, he is just a vessel for Daryna (and through her, Zabuzhko) to unlock the past and to piece together the puzzles of history, her own and Ukraine's. As the secrets and the dead pile on one another, and as Daryna gets closer to the root of her story, the tension strangely eases. Newly unemployed (or liberated), Daryna goes softer, even harboring a tender spot for the KGB agent who provides the last clues to her case. The novel lightens with it, Zabuzhko sharing in a deterministic, ineffable optimism.

The author has done this before. In her first novel, Fieldwork of Ukrainian Sex, she caps off an introspective lament of lost love with an oddly upbeat note. That work, a compulsive rant that found "the Ukrainian" in the wider world, as it were, won acclaim as the most important book in the first fifteen years of Ukraine's independence.

Whereas Fieldwork of Ukrainian Sex, despite its inward gaze, placed Ukraine in the world, this book (her second to be translated into English) layers Ukraine's history upon itself, sifting through the wreck of the past seventy-odd years. Conversely, this book is in its way more suitable for an international audience, in a form -- historical WWII novel mashed with post-Soviet thriller (Purge by Sofi Oksanen, for example) -- that is more easily digested and recognizable for outsiders.

In the pivotal dream sequence in the center of the novel, Adrian and Daryna talk to one another in a hallucinatory, half-conscious pause. Daryna senses that the two have inherited something, a secret, a love unfulfilled in the past, and she recalls her childhood games, the secrets buried with friends, and how those secrets were eventually forgotten. "It was like I saw all at once all those secrets we'd made and then abandoned and never checked on again," she says, "All our sealed friendships, tears, pledges... our little lives under glass... A giant museum of abandoned secrets."

The two talk themselves back to sleep, back into their dreams. They return to their shared dream of the partisans, and to the most important act of resistance they can undertake: making sure the secrets are no longer abandoned, no longer hidden where only their creators can see them.

The Museum of Abandoned Secrets by Oksana Zabuzhko, translated by Nina Shevchuck-Murray
ISBN: 978-1611090116
760 pages