Table of Contents 2
Room 1. This 10
Room 3. Adrian’s Dreams 64
Room 4. From the Cycle Secrets: After the Blast 110
Room 5. An Evening for Two 169
Room 6. Adrian’s Last Dream 222
Room 7. The Road to Zolotonosha 279
Room 8. Blood in Kyiv 345
ABOUT THE AUTHOR 409
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR 410
Praise for The Museum of Abandoned Secrets
“Many books at the top of the bestseller list today are not necessarily distinguished by the quality of their language. In Ukraine, however, a book that has been the number-one bestseller since it was published is not only an exception to this rule, but quite the opposite. Oksana Zabuzhko’s The Museum of Abandoned Secrets is so rich and precise in its language, and also so political and demanding, that one cannot help wondering what is different about Ukraine.”
“The Museum of Abandoned Secrets is a magnum opus, in which everything that the armory of literature can provide is mobilized against the forces of darkness: strong emotions, the power of pathos, the most compelling images...A novel of power—and a powerful novel.”
“Pugnacious, feverish, brilliant—with her 759-page novel about the history of Ukraine in the twentieth century, Oksana Zabuzhko has thrown open a window in her homeland. She is already celebrated as a second Dostoyevsky, but above all she has triggered an intense debate about social relationships and their roots in the past that people have yet to come to terms with.”
—Schweizer Radio DRS
“As an attempt at the archeology of memory it sets the world on fire, as a romance novel it is touching, and as a vivisection of social and political injustices in late- and post-communist Ukraine it has a virulence that is difficult to surpass.”
—Ilma Rakusa, NZZ
“Violence and fear lie in the bones of generations of Ukrainians, and what power do the ostracized dead have over the living? Oksana Zabuzhko writes about this heavy subject as lightly and freshly as the main female character talks.”
“This book is a spectacular intellectual success. It is driven by the belief that intellectual and political freedom is the only thing worth fighting for, apart from love, of course. Equipped with an almost megalomaniacal imagination and defiant humor, the author invents dreamlike parallel collateral campaigns, illuminates culture, society, and politics in multiple perspectives, and makes ghostly excursions into the past...With The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, Oksana Zabuzhko has written both herself and Ukraine into the scabby heart of Europe.”
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Text copyright © 2009 by Oksana Zabuzhko
English translation copyright © 2012 by Nina Shevchuk-Murray
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
The Museum of Abandoned Secrets was originally published in 2009 by Fact, Kiev, as Музей покинутих секретів. Translated from Ukrainian by Nina Shevchuk-Murray.
Published by AmazonCrossing
P.O. Box 400818
Las Vegas, NV 89140
Library of Congress Control Number: 2012946025
For Mom and Rostyk
Regardless of their original functions, objects buried for an extended time underground or under water become archeological artifacts. At the moment they are recovered, their new history begins. Being buried underground often results in damage ... to both organic and inorganic materials.... The goal of preventative conservation is to arrest the progress of such destruction by ensuring optimal storage conditions.
—From “Cultural Welfare: Restoration of
Archeological Finds in Berlin’s
State Museums,” exhibit guide,
Altes Museum, Berlin,
March 27–June 1, 2009
To know what’s happened to us ... wait for us.
—A 1952 inscription on a wall of the Lviv KGB prison,
open to the public since 2009
as the Lontsky Street Prison Museum
Room 1. This
And then come the photos: black and white, faded into a caramel-brown sepia, some printed on that old dense paper with the embossed dappling and white scalloped edges like the lace collars of school uniforms, all from the pre-Kodak era—the era of the Cold War and nationally manufactured photography supplies (really, nationally manufactured everything)—and yet, the women in the pictures are adorned with the towering mousses of chignons, those stupid constructions of dead and, more often than not, someone else’s (ugh) hair. They are dressed in the same stiff rectangular dresses as the ladies in a Warhol film or, as say, Anouk Aimée in 8½ (a film they could have actually seen, or at least had a theoretical chance of seeing, if they endured the five-hour wait in the squeeze of the film-festival crowd, then fought their way into the movie hall, sweaty and ecstatic, with those chignons knocked askew and with dark multicolored horseshoes of sweat in the armpits of the white nylon blouses that one always wore with one’s best colored chemises—nationally manufactured, naturally—cerulean, pink, lilac).
But the photos can’t show you the chemises or the moist horseshoes, nor could anyone reproduce the smell of those lines—of bodies still naïve to deodorant, but generously floured with powder and rouge and scented with Indian Sandalwood from the Red Moscow factory or, at best, though no less cloying, with the Polish-made May Be. No one could ever restore that mottled chorus of perfume and the women’s hot flesh, and in the pictures—freshly made-up and with their hair just so—the women could easily pass for Anouk Aimée’s contemporaries with no Iron Curtain visible from where I stand forty years later.
You know what I just thought? Women are generally less susceptible to political perturbations than men. They pull on their nylon stockings, or later, the hose that were so hard to find in the stores, and smooth them over their legs with the same concentration no matter what—Kennedy assassinations or tanks in the streets of Prague—and that’s why it is men who truly define the face of a country (at least the country we once had).
Do you remember the hats the men wore? Those identical furry cubes with earflaps, same for all, like a uniform. Pyzhyk. That’s what the fur was called, that’s right, herds of silently black pyzhyks lined up in military precision on the terrace of Lenin’s Mausoleum on the 7th of November, and it was invariably pouring—as if the whole universe were in mourning—while stressed-out column organizers barked at the marchers like guard dogs at chain gangs because the columns were to pass in front of the mausoleum without umbrellas, bareheaded in the rain or snow, so as not to spoil the picture on TV (not that we had color TVs, our national manufacturers hadn’t quite “overtaken” the West on that front yet).
But you protest. Those had come around by the seventies, except they were impossible to find and expensive as hell.
Alright, what’s next? This stern-faced rug rat in a romper with pom-poms, that’s you, too? And the woman holding you on her lap, who’s that? Granny Lina? The picture casts a spell—grips you and doesn’t let go—maybe because just as the photographer closed the shutter, the woman lowered her eyes to the baby with that preoccupied and beatific expression that all women have when they hold a child—theirs or someone else’s—leaving us on this side of the lens, waiting for her to look up again, while the picture grows more disconcerting the longer you look, especially when you know that the woman is long gone from this world, and we will never know what she would’ve looked like had she blinked and raised her eyes from the baby that instant.
As if I didn’t have plenty of my own ghosts—my own unfading, caramel-shiny brown faces, dappled with the pox of the same raster that cannot be Photoshopped away. Pictures that when scanned lose their soul—like poems translated from one language to another—looking dreadfully pitiful on screen, as if they’d been pulled out of the water and hung to dry on an invisible wire. Raised from the bottom of the sea, one could say, the phrase calling up a subconscious habit of perception: there they were, buried under silt and water, and we found them and brought them back to light—like it’s some great favor or something. Where exactly does it come from, I’d like to know, this ineradicable attitude of superiority toward the past? This stubbornly dumb, can’t-kill-it-with-an-ax conviction that we, the now, critically and categorically know better than they, the past. Is it from the mere fact that their future is known to us, that we know what happens? (Nothing good.) It’s much the way we treat small children—pedantic and permissive at the same time. And we always think of the people of the past—just as we do of children—as being naïve in everything from their clothes and hairstyles to their thoughts and feelings. Even when those people are our own family. Or rather, had been, once.
“What are you thinking about?”
“I don’t know. Us, I guess.”
This is the difference between a marriage and all other (however volcanically eruptive) affairs and flings—this obligatory exchange of ghosts. Your dead become mine and vice versa. The list of names submitted for All Souls’ Mass grows longer: as always, there is Anatoly, Lyudmyla, Odarka, Oleksander, Fedir, and Tetyana, but after them come, like a new orchestra section joining a symphony in a drawn-out, lowering, celloed, and double-bassed andante, Apollinaria, Stefania, Ambroziy, Volodymyra—names that sound as if they belonged to a completely different nation, and maybe it was a different nation after all, the one wiped out in 1933 between Kyiv and Poltava—a tribe whose members have names like Thalimon or Lampia or Porf or Thekla, names that make one think of early Christians and not at all of relatives and kin just two or three generations removed. The Western, Galician, Catholic names from the same time sound alive in comparison, however vaguely—but still there are people who can say, that’s my uncle, that’s my grandpa, that one perished in Siberia, and this one emigrated to Canada.
That’s when you recall, with an addled nostalgic smile that spreads on your face slowly, out-of-focus—like milk spilled on a table—how one day in the early eighties a box came for your family from Canada, from just such a brother-of-a-third-cousin-once-removed uncle. The KGB let it through somehow, either because it was already busy packing up or just plain and simple had lost its grip, like everything in this country that turned loose and flabby right before the finale. A real Canadian box containing no flower-rimmed, square shawl that the diaspora insisted on supplying in great numbers to the Old Country but jeans—sweet Jesus!—your very first Levi’s, and a denim shirt to go along, and then in the foreign-currency-only Beryozka store your parents bought you real Adidas sneakers and an Adidas backpack, and that’s how you arrived at school, every day.
And for an instant I hurt again with a hot cramp in my stomach, with that retrospective, and therefore meaningless, teenage jealousy—as if this picture of yourself that you remember sends me tumbling twenty years back, right along with you, frozen at my school desk, unable to take my eyes off the most hopelessly unattainable boy in our class. You don’t even notice me—you wouldn’t notice the girl I was then, an acne-pocked, straight-A student with a wet-noodle braid on my shoulder—you never would, except maybe to politely open a door for me. Boys like you from good families, plied with early success, always have good manners because you have no need to draw attention to yourselves with stupid pranks; nothing better than positive life experience to engender friendliness—that superficial, tepid good-naturedness, like a constant body temperature, that is utterly impervious to aggression—or sympathy.
“Incredible,” I say, shaking my head, but you don’t understand; you’re not on the same wavelength, and you continue surfing along on your own frequency, registering my comment as a quick burst of applause for your past triumphs with girls. You toss it, with a small clink, into that twenty-years-ago drawer in your mind; and so we stay, just as we were—each with our own drawers whose contents haven’t mixed, haven’t even been put out side by side and really compared. And that’s what I meant by incredible.
How could we hope to conduct our dead-relatives exchange—to cross these ghostly bloodlines that stretch into the most impenetrable reaches of time—if we can’t even manage to marry our younger selves, that boy and that girl who used to fall in love with other girls and boys, who both lay awake at night in different cities without the slightest inkling of each other’s existence? And the worst of it is that they are still here—that boy and that girl. They must be if I am still capable of such idiotic jealousy toward your high-school sweetheart—never mind that I met her decidedly in the present tense, precisely so that I could get over it once and for all, because the comparison now was not at all in her favor. She turned out to be a rather dour, prickly, thick-boned, and lumpy-looking matron, like the former project engineers who now have to sell secondhand clothes off cots in street markets; and she had those deep-set eyes—like soot-black hollows—that with the passing of time seem to be increasingly the result of constant crying or no less constant drinking, aging their owner beyond her years.
On top of that, she didn’t even smile when we met, which leads me to conclude that her life experience thus far has not proved particularly conducive to friendliness—it is quite possible that first schoolgirl love remains her only bright spot—and so I ought to pity her, both as a fellow human being and as a woman. But like hell I can, because I am still not sure which woman it is that you see in there: This current one, or this one and the one from back then, together, a shadowbox backlit with a time-denying glow from another dimension. If it’s the latter, the deck is stacked against me because the only me you know is the present-day me, cut with an ax at a year-old whorl—a single thin line, no matter how wonderful the shape it draws.
“You’re like a little bird...my schoolgirl...”
“How am I a schoolgirl?”
“It’s your body—it’s like a teenage girl’s. It’s fantastic.”
“That it has managed to stay this way.”
“What a prick!”
“Oh, am I now?” you say, very agreeably, turning me on my back. Your hands’ capacity to coax out of my flesh musical tones—so varied in pitch and color, audible to myself alone (a little like the minimalists, like Philip Glass, only this makes Glass look like a rookie; he couldn’t have dreamed of such a palette...)—once again forces me to enter a different kind of listening: with my eyes closed, focused completely on the pictures that flash and flicker on the insides of my eyelids, like a symphony—first come pale fronds of fern, unfurling slowly, as if underwater, with the fluid precision of Japanese prints; then the surface breaks into a rich dollop of tropical emerald green that grows darker and darker until it congeals and hardens into the aching point of my nipple, and at exactly the moment when I am about to cry out with real pain, the pressure releases, spills into a caressing flood, and a round, fiery-orange sun rises triumphantly above the horizon. The joy makes me laugh out loud. I am now all living, spinning wet clay in the hands of a master potter, a musical sculpture.
“You’re not supposed to applaud after the overture,” you say from somewhere in the dark, as if already inside me, and your hands keep moving with merciless precision—this gift of yours—and I begin to die again, as usual (How do you do that?) long before you enter and fill me entirely; and when you finally do, all that’s left of me is a form, a mold—warmed with the gentle glow of gratitude, fluid and flexible—into which you pour all of yourself with the desperate force of nature, the all-consuming fire and rock. Oh you, you, you, my love, my nameless one (in these moments you don’t have a name, cannot be named any more than infinity itself)—a primordial boom, a flash of newly born planets, an eclipse, a scream. Of course, this is incredible luck; you and I have been unbelievably, unfairly lucky—so lucky it’s frightening. Why us? And what price shall we be asked to pay for this? But just think about it—I murmur in blissful lethargy, my nose tucked securely into your not-yet-cooled neck, with its sweat, with its warm, spicy (Cinnamon? Cumin?), manly scent—millions of people must have lived their whole lives and never experienced anything like this (although, come to think of it, how would we know?—but something inexorably fills happy lovers with this unshakeable certainty that they are the first since creation). And that’s why there isn’t a single reason (and if there had been, it’s been washed away with the tidal wave), not a single good reason, to rewind and reflect upon that “schoolgirl” and the fact that you persist—as if you’d be an idiot not to—in your stubborn, hand-callusing work of merging me—in the sum total of all emotions and sensations, sensory memory included—of binding me in with your first love.
This would be the moment to ask with affected cynicism something like, “What, you’re an expert in schoolgirls? Nymphophile? How exactly would you know?” But a question like that would do no more than disrupt the mining machinery of memory—an intrusion as careless as calling after a sleepwalker as he makes his way along the edge of a roof, and with the same risk of having the roused man tumble to his death. No, let it all be; let it go as it goes. I’m not the one to take a wrench to someone else’s brain. And really shouldn’t I be flattered? Or at least reassured? What more reliable proof of his undying love can a man give a woman than to plug her (to borrow from electrical engineering) into the network of the first female images set into the concrete foundation of his imagination: his mother, his sister, the girl next door? (And women do this, too: all of us plug each other into one thing or the other, ready to replace breakers, find missing wires, and wrap it all thickly with insulation tape until—boom!—the circuit shorts with a jolt.)
Dear sisterhood: Let us all love our mother-in-laws, for they are our future; they are the women we will become in thirty years (otherwise, your beloved would never have noticed you, would never have recognized you). Let us love our rivals, past and present, for each one of those women has something of ours, something that we ourselves fail to notice and prize and that, for him, is sure to be most important. Shit, does this mean I have something in common with that droopy-faced hag with eyes like burnt holes in a blanket!?
And this is just the beginning, Lord. Just the beginning.
Apollinaria, Stefania, Ambroziy, Volodymyra. (How comical these cloche hats from the Jazz Age of the already-past century: these tightly fitted little felt pots, pulled down to just above the eyebrows and banded with silk—you know it’s silk because it glistens even in the prints—with tiny brims and round tops; and the women’s legs, always in stockings, even in summer. Just think how they must’ve sweated, poor things.) To shuffle the photos is to greet each one of them silently with my eyes, despite the fact that they’re all long dead. I’m the one poorer for it.
It’s not just me looking at them—they do look back. I realize this in an instant (I couldn’t possibly explain this, even to you!) with the same precise and inexplicable certainty as I did one day, many years ago, at St. Sophia Cathedral when I had wandered in, lathered after a half-sleepless night, agitated not so much by any real events but by the much more deeply disturbing premonition of fundamental changes in my life—changes whose advance I could feel from all sides at once and which I knew portended the end of my youth.
The ticket office had just opened and I was the first visitor, all alone in the echoing and alert silence of the temple, where every step on the terrifying cast-iron floors rang all the way through the choir lofts. I stood at the bottom of the honey-thick twilight suspended in half-consciousness by a swirling, tilting pillar of sunlit dust until I suddenly felt a thrust at my chest: from a fresco on the opposite wall of a side nave, a white-bearded man in a blue, richly draped, floor-length cloak looked at me, his dry, walnut-colored palms pressed together. I felt faint—a soft, furry paw brushed me from inside—a shaky shard of a vision slashed through the air. Something stirred. I stepped closer but the man—this monk or statesman with the time-darkened face and those clearly drawn, typically Ukrainian contours that are also soft like the lines of aging mountains and that one still recognizes, so easily, in the faces of the men at the Besarabsky Market—was already looking at something else. Only the eyes—implacably dark and swollen with knowledge—burdened his face, as if not given quite enough room, and it seemed they would turn upon me again at any moment. I couldn’t stand it and looked away first, and it was then that I saw what I had never noticed before, as if helped by a sudden shift of light: the cathedral was alive, it teemed with people—every wall and arch was inhabited with dimly silent, time-smudged women and men, and every one of them had the same otherworldly eyes, pregnant with the ecclesiastical pall of all-knowing.
All these eyes saw me. I stood there in view of a crowd, only it was not a crowd of strangers. They took me in with such kindness and understanding, as if they knew everything about me, so much more than I could ever know myself, and as I slowly dissolved—like a pat of butter in warm water—in their encircling gaze (I couldn’t tell how long this lasted, time had stopped), it was suddenly revealed to me as the most obvious thing in the world that these people did not just live a thousand years ago; they had lived for a thousand years, taking in everything that had passed before their eyes until their gaze held the quintessence of time—the heavy slow suspension of a millennium, clots and crystals of time squeezed together like tightly pressed atomic nuclei. And I was before them, a mortal, barely nineteen. I wasn’t even a woman yet to tell the truth (it was soon after that I became one), so perhaps mine was the kind of revelation classified in theological literature as a maiden’s vision or some such. At any rate, never again, in any of the ancient holy places—not at the Athenian Parthenon, nor on the bare site of the Jerusalem Temple, nor in the Garden of Gethsemane—would those, visible or invisible, who persist in a place for ages, welcome me as one of their own. All I ever felt again—even when I managed to be alone with them—was their purposeful wariness, not menacing or defiant but more akin to a held breath, a whisper: What do you want, woman?
I must admit they have a point. Indeed, what business do I have with them? Having once accepted a man, a woman passes irretrievably into a different gravitational field—she simply falls into time, into a silt-clogged stream, falls with the entire weight of her earthly body, with her uterus and ovaries, these living chronometers. And time begins to flow through her, no longer pure (for when pure it does not flow at all, it stands still, like that day at St. Sophia; it is a single lake, a placid spill of the radiant dark-honeyed twilight) but embodied as she is in her clan—her kin—in the endless chromosomal rosary of the dying and resurrecting genotype that pulses with mortal flesh into that which we call—for lack of a more accurate term—human history, every one of us plugged into a serial circuit and once in, you cannot jump out, you cannot see the whole thing from outside. Unless you’re a nun—but it’s too late for me now.