UKRAINIAN WRITER Oksana Zabuzhko’s Your Ad Could Go Here isn’t her first book in English, but it is her most varied. Her novel Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex (1996), translated in 2011 by Halyna Hryn, was a groundbreaking feminist work that explored female sexuality with an openness that shocked and thrilled Ukrainian readers. According to scholar Uilleam Blacker, “Zabuzhko sees national identity not as something that is confined to public political and cultural debates, but as being inscribed in the intimate, private spaces of the home and the body.” In Fieldwork, the body — specifically the female body — emerges as both an actor in, and a reflection of, the postcolonial condition of Ukraine in the half-decade after the country attained independence. Zabuzhko’s next book in English, Museum of Abandoned Secrets (2009), which was translated by Nina Murray in 2012, is a saga that tackles many complex, often suppressed Soviet and Ukrainian historical realities, from the actions of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army of the 1940s to the consequences of the Orange Revolution of 2004. In 2019, Zabuzhko received the Shevchenko National Prize, Ukraine’s highest award for works of art and culture. The prize recognizes not only her novels, but also her poetry, nonfiction, and short stories. Now, a selection of those stories is finally available in English.
Your Ad Could Go Here draws together a talented team of translators, made up of Murray, who also serves as editor, Hryn, Askold Melnyczuk, Marco Carynnyk, and Marta Horban. The lengths of the pieces vary, but they all show Zabuzhko’s predilection for long sentences and her fascination with collective memory. Rich, lyrical descriptions lasso the reader into the lives of the characters and into the historical dramas of the past and present. The stories gathered here address both the 2014 Revolution of Dignity (also known as Euromaidan) and the Russian-Ukrainian War, but they focus primarily on relationships between women, on the manner in which personal bonds are established. The gravity of the subjects differs from piece to piece, yet the seriousness of Zabuzhko’s tone lends all the characters dignity.
“An Album for Gustav” chronicles life on the Maidan during the revolution of 2014. It points to the inadequacy of language to portray the situation, yet Zabuzhko herself seems fully in command of her language. We get a deep sense of the camaraderie that takes hold of strangers during uprisings, and of the way one comes to crave that feeling. One of the two narrators is a photographer observing the situation from a distance; his camera separates him from the events. When he shows his photographs to Gustav, a foreigner, the events seem even further away. Yet the act of sharing brings them both closer to the meaning of the event. The other narrator is the photographer’s wife, a historian whose reflections (e.g., “a sort of deeper, collective memory had come alive in us, even for those who weren’t aware of it”) bring the situation into focus: “Somehow, overnight, history ceased being the past.”
“No Entry to the Performance Hall after the Third Bell” also dwells on collective memory. The chief protagonist’s daughter, who is dating a soldier, seems to remember a war in which she never took part. The soldier, meanwhile, has lost a limb during the current Russian-Ukrainian War in the east of the country. Through him, Zabuzhko explores the difficulty of learning to live with a devastating injury and of getting used to it, the way that people can get used to war itself.
“The Tale of the Guelder Rose Flute,” which portrays a relationship between two girls, relies on a different, perhaps even deeper kind of collective memory. It’s based on a well-known Ukrainian folktale and is of novella length. In contrast to “An Album for Gustav,” the perspective of the narrator is close to the events. We are made to feel the lives of the sisters Hanna and Olenka, to dwell in their skins. The sisters are always in competition, but, ironically, this competitiveness, and Olenka’s sabotage (her “put[ting] a dead end to all Hanna’s meticulously executed preparations”), strengthens their bond; Olenka is always underfoot. Hanna also feels a profound connection with her own body, as in this sultry scene in the water: “She always loved to swim — she loved to feel the water caress her body, the tickle upon entering, its marvelous, soft touch that fondled her in most secret, most shameful ways…” Indeed, the world the sisters know best is their own — the world of their bodies — and when a mysterious lover comes to Hanna at night, we are left to wonder whether she has dreamed him up for herself.
Yet the story that most effectively portrays the relationship between female protagonists is the appropriately titled “Girls.” In it, Zabuzhko’s gift for depicting female sensuality and interconnection shines like nowhere else:
[T]wo wildly intertwined girls on a bench in the park at night, her budding breasts under her school uniform thrust into yours, her lashes tickling your neck, like in that myth where the cloud of the gods rendered the lovers invisible to mere mortals — nobody walked down the path, nobody rustles the fallen leaves, there was nobody to be surprised when Effie began kissing the trail of tears under Darka’s eyes and then pressed her lips to hers and gasped, stunned for an instant, Effie’s heart thumped inside Darka’s chest and both froze …
The two girls look each other in the eyes and see who they really are. One of the girls is in fact living the life of the other: “Effie had not come from the outside, she’d unfolded from Darka like one of her own organs. Like the dormant gene of an inherited disease.”
The characters themselves don’t stand out — it is their connection that we see most clearly. This concern with the connection between characters in moments of high drama and intimate passion makes Zabuzhko’s prose, which is always anchored in Ukrainian reality, universally relevant.
Your Ad Could Go Here is held together by this theme, as well as by the stylistic quality of the prose. “That’s what writers are for,” Zabuzhko writes in the titular story, “to try to understand everyone and everything and put this understanding into words.” The words she has found are nearly always perfect, one leading effortlessly to another. The reader moves through the text as if following the scent of flowers. At times the prose approaches poetry, and readers who appreciate it will be happy to know that a selection of Zabuzhko’s poems is forthcoming from Arrowsmith Press.
Olena Jennings is the author of the collection of poems Songs from an Apartment (Underground Books, 2017). Her translations of Ukrainian poetry have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, and a volume of her translations of Iryna Shuvalova’s verse, Pray to the Empty Walls, was published in 2019 by Lost Horse Press.