Îêñàíà Çàáóæêî. Ïîëüîâ³ äîñë³äæåííÿ ç óêðà¿íñüêîãî ñåêñó. Êè¿â: «Çãîäà»1996. 142 pp. (paper)
Oxana Zabuzhko is a well-known Ukrainian poet of the younger generation as well as a literary critic and translator. Field Research in Ukrainian Sex, her debut in the genre of the novel, marks the emergence of a powerful new voice in Ukrainian belle-lettres. This work immediately strikes the reader with its novelty of form and with the original way it presents eternal issues like love, life, and creativity, intertwining them with uniquely Ukrainian themes.
The narrator, a Ukrainian visiting professor at Harvard, is a poet and a Slavic scholar. She is preoccupied with the thoughts of her recent love affair which has left her frustrated and distracted. As she ponders the sexual, existential and national aspects of this abortive relationship, she creates before the eyes of her reader a panoramic picture of twentieth-century Ukraine, whose tragic fate plagues the narrator`s mind. Sexual imagery and sexual discourse are employed as powerful tools in the narrator`s attempt to discuss and redefine her sexual, as well as her national identity. These two identities are fused within her and mirror the state of her country.
Throughout the book she addresses her reader as ``ladies and gentlemen.`` This implies that she is speaking to an American audience. She candidly tells the reader that her topic is ``Field Research in Ukrainian sex.`` It does not take long, though, for us to understand that this catchy title is just a camouflage for another discussion, which, if defined undisguisedly might have distanced her putative American listeners. As the narration proceeds the identity of the intended receptors of her musings grows blurred. Though the American audience is at times consigned to the background, it never loses its importance for the narration. It facilitates the narrator`s development of the main theme of her ``address,`` that of Ukraine.
The theme of Ukraine which is central to the novel, appears in numerous aspects: the problem of Ukraine`s existential situation, its post-Stalinist history, its place in the world, the Ukrainian nation and the Ukrainian intelligentsia, Ukrainian women and Ukrainian men, Ukrainian culture and Ukraine`s future. Zabuzhko`s treatment of these issues is devoid of the kind of sentimentality and melodramatic overtones that have become almost canonical in Ukrainian literature. In fact, the narrative is imbued with an extremism of method which consistently undermines this time-(dis)honored national convention. The author extensively employs the technique of defamiliarization, with the narrator using her American audience as the criterion for reevaluating the issues under discussion. The ``ladies and gentlemen`` to whom the narrator addresses herself serve as a collective mediator through the eyes of whom the Ukrainian reader is forced to take a fresh look at himself and his world. While the Americans roar with laughter when the narrator translates the beginning of the Ukrainian national anthem (Ukraine has not died yet, -- ``What kind of anthem is that?`` (103)) it is explained that these lyrics, which strike a foreigner as ridiculous, define the entire history of Ukraine as a constant struggle for survival. The typical exchange ``Where are you from?`` -- ``Ukraine,`` -- ``Where is that?`` (35) brings to the fore the problem of the international status of the country as a non-country which, just like the narrator herself, ``got tired of non-being in this world`` (35).
But the narrator does not invite the reader to pity her poor country, though it is anonymous to the world, unrecognized and frustrated. The narrator who defines herself as a ``national-masochist`` (53) and a ``professional Ukrainianizer`` (33) claims to employ literature as a means of ``national therapy`` in her merciless fight against the ``complex of national inferiority`` (57). This position justifies her radical methods in rethinking the notion of Ukraine. While she psychoanalyzes her country with the objectivity and detachment of a medical doctor treating a pathological case, she does not spare either herself and her native land, or her reader. Ukraine in the novel is presented as a blood-thirsty Cronos devouring his own children (24). It is a non-country which can offer its people only two choices: that of non-existence or of an existence that kills (46). On the other hand, if the picture of Ukraine is drawn against the background of America, the land of opportunity, the optimistic American worldview is gradually dismantled by virtue of its self-centered and narrow-minded nature.
Field Research in Ukrainian Sex features the idiosyncratic brilliance of Zabuzhko`s language which is saturated with English and Russian borrowings, quotations and realia. It presents a challenge to a monolingual reader. The Ukrainian language becomes a powerful tool in the textual and metatextual struggle for the narrator`s national and personal identity. It allows her to exercise her ``hitherto never fully known freedom to be herself`` (33). It is her castle and her home (16). It casts a spell on her American audience. As it creates the texture of the narrative, it actualizes the narrator`s determination to preserve the language of her land from contamination and decay. The extensive use in the text of English, and to a lesser extent Russian expressions is both functional and symbolic. For example, one of the functions of English is to challenge the peripheral thinking and mode of existence of the narrator`s countrymen and countrywomen. The use of Russian by Ukrainians becomes a target of the narrator`s sarcasm. She mocks Ukraine`s dependence on the Russian idiom exemplified by her lovers` sexual discourse. At the same time she defies the ruthless intrusion of the Russian language onto Ukrainian terrain, proclaiming that Russian words and expressions that are alien to her language must be italicized (in oral speech by intonation!) as foreign borrowings (31).
Sexual vigor and a powerful gift of poetic creativity are the two outstanding characteristics of the narrator and by implication of her country. They are given in sharp contrast to the existential doom that has befallen the Ukrainian people. To awaken this people, marked by fear of living and degeneration, the narrator offers them the panacea of love. The longing for love and sex also epitomize the quest for the rebirth pivotal to both the narrator and her country whose ``pity for ... [the] wasted body ... could only be understood by the prisoners of the GULAG.`` (39) The raped body (36) of the radioactive land is, against all odds, ready to revive and blossom just like the narrator who dreams of a fair-haired son. While ``slaves should not have progeny`` (71), the Ukrainian intelligentsia should have sexual orgies and multiply to repopulate the ``not-yet-dead`` land. The sexual frame of the book presents a manifold metaphor for Ukraine. The different facets of this metaphor (e.g. the divorce of the narrator`s sexual expectations from reality, the impotence of Ukrainian men and their women`s motherly, sisterly and daughterly love for them, the boundless sexuality of the narrator, etc.) add up to create a powerful image of a country longing for the redemptive self-realization of motherhood.
The theme of Ukraine`s revival is blended with that of art and creativity. As a creator, the narrator not only performs the therapeutic role of reconstituting Ukraine`s self-consciousness, she also challenges her country`s metaphysical doom by daring to assume the role of the Creator. Her art does not ``justify that life from which it emerges`` (104) but undertakes a bold attempt to answer all the philosophical and existential questions raised in the novel by showing her country a new path to the future, a future free from slave mentality and fear.