Ukrainian Studies

Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures

SLA238S, Literature of the Ukrainian Canadian Experience, 1998-1999

Instructor:Maxim Tarnawsky121 St. Joseph St. Alumni Hall 403
tarn@chass.utoronto.ca 926-1300 x3338FAX 978-2672

What is Told in The Green Library

History, Institutions, Language

A Paper presented at the conference Cross-Stitching Cultural Borders: Comparing Ukrainian Experience in Canada and the United States, October 29-31, 1998. Toronto

The notion that two North American writers who write fiction on Ukrainian subjects exemplify or reflect the experience of Ukrainians in their country is both self evident and preposterous. When Frances Swyripa approached me to participate in this conference and we agreed that I would talk about Janice Kulyk Keefer's 1996 novel, The Green Library and Askold Melnyczuk's novel, What is Told, from 1994, it was obvious that this was a reasonable way to examine the different attitudes toward Ukraine and Ukrainians in Canada and the United States. A writer always reflects, to some extent, his or her place and time. We can learn a great deal about Elizabethan England by reading Shakespeare, even if he's writing about medieval Denmark, the old Roman Empire, or cities in Italy. Although no one empowered them with the credentials of a spokesperson, Dickens is Victorian England, Tolstoy is late tsarist Russia, Kulyk Keefer is Canada, and Melnyczuk is the US.

But it is also immediately obvious that this is a completely unjustified assumption. Even if Keefer and Melnyczuk were descriptive realists like Dickens or Tolstoy--which they are not-- and even if both writers were explicitly concerned with depicting Ukrainians in their respective countries--this, at least in part, they are--then they would still be expressing their own personal views. If the former Governor General of Canada were to write about his experiences as a Ukrainian in Canada, would the world he describes correspond to the one in which the grandson of Stepan Bandera lives? Probably not! And so too the authors we approach today, must not be regarded as spokespersons or representatives. Rather, like the frogs lined up for dissection in a high school biology class, they are unique and individual specimens. With scalpel in hand, we must find an approach that will reveal the characteristics of the entire species, without destroying the peculiarities of the individual.

The novels before us offer a great variety of incision points for our scalpel. Each author focuses on a particular set of issues, unique to this work. An approach that illuminates these peculiarities is more likely to do justice to the texts in question, but less likely to offer useful insights on the subject of cross border ethnic comparisons. So let me begin by focusing on what the two novels have in common.

Let's start with the obvious. These are both novels of ethnic boosterism. That is, they are both explicitly concerned with presenting to a non-Ukrainian reader a portrait or at least a partial depiction of Ukraine and Ukrainians. In Keefer's novel this is partially motivated by the plot. The central character discovers that she is Ukrainian and is, therefore, learning about Ukraine. In both novels the fundamental truth of Ukrainian ethnicity is history. I shall return to the question of why history is significant later--for the moment, let's look at how it appears in the novels.

Keefer's novel does not move chronologically, it is constructed of interwoven fragments of the present and the past. Thus, history (understood as the past) is a matter of preeminent concern but it is not presented as part of the central story being told. Much of the discovery of Ukraine, particularly its history, is presented outside the context of Eve's experiences. For example, details of the Nazi occupation of Kyiv including the soviet mining of buildings and the executions in Babyn Iar are presented in the second chapter of the book, long before Eve has any idea of her Ukrainian genealogy. In a later chapter we get a tourist's concise history of Ukraine, with references to Greeks and Varangians; Cossacks, Turks and Tartars; Boris and Gleb and the students who died at Kruty. And, of course, Chornobyl'. No wonder Keefer gives thanks to Orest Subtelny in her afterword.

Melnyczuk's book also offers a high-calorie serving of Ukrainian history. The lives of the central characters in his book are, like those in Keefer's book, shaped by the major events of Ukrainian history in this century. One difference between Melnyczuk and Keefer is that his characters are western Ukrainians. Zenon Zabobon is a captain in the Galician army, which means, I presume, the Ukrainska halytska armiia, the army of the Western Ukrainian Republic. He is later seen harboring Jews from the Nazis. In between, while his brother Stefan practices kinky sex in Vienna, the NKVD is rounding up starving Ukrainian children to keep the famine from the public eye. Melnyczuk, like Keefer, does not limit history to those events the characters have witnessed. Stefan Zabobon is continually immersed in historical questions and is even writing a History of Rozdorizha. Snippets of Ukrainian history from Kyivan Rus' to the present appear throughout the novel, most often as subject matter in the conversation of the characters. For example, in the very wide ranging discussion in the barn at the Carpathia resort, an exchange about Napoleon's military tactics is seasoned with references to Khmelnytskyi (spelled Khmelnitsky in the novel), Mazepa (Mazeppa), and Bila Tserkva. (166)

These snippets of history are a central feature of Melnyczuk's novel and mark a significant difference between his and Keefer's writing. Melnyczuk's novel is narrated within the circle of Ukrainian Americans. At every turn, there are images, expressions, and allusions that are not entirely comprehensible to the uninitiated. The target audience, to put it differently, is Ukrainian American, or at least familiar with their world. The reference to Bila Tserkva in association with Napoleon's battles, for example, is not one the average US reader is likely to recognize. Of course, the average US reader is also unlikely to recognize Friedland, Borodino, Leipzig, and, perhaps, even Hapsburgs. But, these, at least, can be looked up in the Encyclopedia Britannica. That same source will only tell you that Bila Tserkva is a city in Ukraine with a nice park.

The ethnic allusiveness of Melnyczuk's text is not, of course, intended to alienate the non-Ukrainian reader. With the help of intertextual allusions and similar devices from writers such as Pound and Nabokov, the contemporary reader has learned to accept these obscurities as part of the fabric of modern fiction. James Joyce, for example, saturates his work with concealed Irish and Jesuit allusions. Like Joyce, Melnyczuk uses these devices to enrich the fabric of the narrative, to deepen the reader's involvement with and exposure to the psychic reality of the characters portrayed. Like the clothes they wear or the houses they live in, the historical events Melnyczuk's characters experience or discuss are part of their essential being. The average American reader does not know them or recognize them--neither the events nor the people they characterize.

The historical events depicted and narrated in Keefer's novel have a different function. The central character in the story, Eva Chown, is a white, anglo-Canadian, middle class everywoman. The facts about Ukraine and Ukrainian history that are presented in the novel are part of her learning experience. Judging by the manner in which these facts are presented, the author assumes that the reader is also learning. This is most evident in the chapters that describe Eva's trip to Ukraine. In chapter 15 for example, Eva's situation is concisely framed with the words "She knows nothing about this country." (181) In the preceding paragraph Eva finds a copy of Orest Subtelny's History of Ukraine on the shelves in Alex's apartment and so the narrative relays what she has read. Similar narratives of historical enlightenment for both the hero and the reader occur in chapter 7, when Eva does research into Ukrainian post-war immigration to Canada, in chapter 9 when Olya Pavlenko tells Eva about Soviet Ukrainian literature and arts, and in chapter 15 when Mykola Savchak, the chronicler of Stalin's misdeeds, tells Eva all about the Banderites and the Melnykites.

The history in Keefer's novel may come from Orest Subtelny's textbook, but it isn't all Ukrainian History 101 with Eva Chown as the star pupil. History as a subject comes up in a number of places in the novel. In chapter 2 Lesia Levkovych recounts in her own mind (but mostly for the edification of the uninformed reader) the events surrounding the German capture of Kyiv in 1941. History is also at the heart many of the interpersonal relationships in the novel. For example, the events in the novel all originate with the quest by an aging grandfather to tell his story to his grandson. When, after all the missed opportunities and failed contacts, Ivan Kotelko finally meets his grandson, Ben, the topic of their conversation is the past--not only the personal past that unites them, but the national past that begins with the princes of Kyiv, Pechenegs, and Khazars. (252) Even the relationship between Eva and Alex, a relationship that is mostly in the loins, cannot escape historical analogies. In his letter to Eva at the end of the novel Alex compares the difficulties of their relationship to the difficult record of Ukrainian history. "It can never work," he says. "We don't speak the same language, the same history. Sometimes I think this country has no history, just a chain of disasters that people have turned into songs and stories."(263) Susan Frost, who was once Oksana Moroz, puts it differently, when she tries to justify her telling Ben about his grandfather: "You've every right to be furious with me, but fury isn't much use against history, is it, Eva? Family history, public history, things you can't hide or change, however much you'd like to." (243)

What is this thing called history, that the people in both these novels choose to stake so much of their lives on it? What is it that intertwines their personal lives with their nations's history? To many Ukrainians, these questions may sound ridiculous, but to others, history need not have any bearing on their family and personal lives. As the title of the old Kyivan chronicle, to which Keefer so often refers, makes plain, history is one of the markers of identity. There can be many answers to the question who are we? One of them is history. For the characters in both these novels, history is clearly the most important factor of their identity. This is not surprising where we are dealing with the nationalist diaspora, for whom this is a defining characteristic. Melnyczuk's entire cast is focused on history because they are products of a cultural atmosphere that has staked its entire existence on the historical inevitability of a nation state. What is told, quite literally in this novel, is the story of the national past. One of the important successes of Melnyczuk's novel is the subtlety with which he both presents and challenges this sense of historical identity. The fate of each of his characters in the new world is to some degree at odds with their historical determinants. Their sense of identity has an alternative source--a personal, internal one. Arkady must make difficult ethical choices. Lastivka tests her own mettle as an Avon lady. Stefan must face the realization that his personal interests and his sense of identity are at odds. When Toor Zabobon, king of the Rozdorizhans sinks his roots in the soil of New Jersey at the end of the novel and unites the past with the future, it is not at all clear whether his laugh is Ukrainian or simply human.

Keefer's numerous Ukrainian characters are also identifiably nationalists and thus predictably consumed by their historical identity. Indeed, Ivan Kotelko is something of an OUN terrorist. The various members of the Moroz family have different responses to their feelings about Ukraine, but all of them see Ukraine through a nationalist prism. Even Mykola Savchak, Ivan's old friend and now a chronicler of the past, sees Ukraine from a nationalist perspective. Most surprising, however, is Eva Chown, who is not Ukrainian (unless genes have national chromosomes) and who has not been brought up with a nationalist sense of identity. But when she realizes that she is the daughter of a Ukrainian, her view of Ukraine quickly crystalizes around an essentially nationalist perspective. Ukraine, for her, is not a place, but a people whose primary characteristic is the presence of absence of an independent state with all the glory and suffering that derive from this situation.

It is important to observe here that this perspective is neither inevitable nor traditional in fiction about Ukrainians, particularly in Canada. From a historical and demographic perspective, this view represents a triumph of the ideologically charged, post WW II immigrants over the much less politicized earlier wave of Ukrainian immigrants to North America. It also represents a rather substantial shift in focus for literature depicting the experience of Ukrainians in Canada. From Illia Kiriak's Sons of the Soil to Fran Ponomarenko's Parcel from Chicken Street, through the works of Ted Galay, George Ryga, Andrew Suknaski, Vera Lysenko, and including non-Ukrainians such as Margaret Laurence or Gabrielle Roy, Canadian literature focused on problems of Ukrainian identity has traditionally concentrated on culture not politics, geography not history and Canada not Ukraine. Janice Kulyk Keefer has chosen otherwise.

Another aspect of the history presented in these novels and one that helps illuminate Keefer's nationalist paradigm is the particular choice of historical events the novel presents. While in Kyiv, Eva is, of course, a tourist, although she does spend much of her time in bed.. In the novel we hear of the Monastery of the Caves, Askold's hill, the university, a number of museums and other attractions, but only in passing. Most prominent are the sites connected with great suffering and loss. The monuments to Boris and Gleb or the heroes of Kruty, the monument to the Great Patriotic War (i.e. the giant titanium baba). Two historic events receive the greatest attention and are specifically woven into the secondary plot: Babyn Iar and Chornobyl. Eva Chown visits the Babyn Iar site in the novel. Given the fact that she is married to a Jew and that her grandmother, Lesia Levkovych, was executed there, this visit is significant in the novel. But, on the other hand, Eva does not yet know about her grandmother's death when she makes her visit with Alex to Babyn Iar. And while her emotions at the site are vividly conveyed, there is no allusion to her husband Dan. The role of Chornobyl in the story is also poorly motivated. Alex's daughter is an apparent victim of the Chornobyl disaster, but this fact only adds to the general misery of Ukraine as a country and seems to be present in the novel only because Chornobyl is the single best known fact about Ukraine in contemporary North America.

Compared to Keefer, Melnyczuk employs a wider and better motivated repertoire of Ukrainian historical allusions. Keefer is often explaining history, sometimes even preaching to her reader--for example, when Alex tells Eva that three times more Dutch than Ukrainians were recruited by the Waffen SS. Did anybody ask this question? Melnyczuk on the other hand, is almost cavalier in his recitation of events, many of them too obscure for unenlightened readers to fully understand. Zenon's near death experience, for example, dramatically changes his behavior: "Though he no longer discussed politics with his family, Zenon remained obsessed with his country's fate. On January 22, 1919, the eastern and western parts of the land were united by the rebel Petliura. By February 4, the Bolsheviks were in Kiev. First Rozdorizha was independent and Ukrainian; then it was subject and Polish. And then Soviet." (31) This short catalogue, familiar to students of Ukrainian history, is hardly a lucid account of the Ukrainian revolution. Its jocular dismissal of the significance of details points the reader in the direction of universal principles and human values that transcend the particularity of any nation's history. Where Keefer wants her reader to focus on the specific horrors of Ukrainian history, Melnyczuk makes the details of this history, the very details that give his characters their sense of identity, mere examples and instances of the human condition. Where Keefer seems preoccupied with questions of responsibility, with the issue of who is guilty of the holocaust, Melnyczuk is content with extravagant juxtapositions: Stefan Zabobon locked in his mistresses' sexual machinery in Vienna while the famine sweeps acrosss Ukraine or his brother, Zenon playing cards with a German officer whom he is cuckolding while hiding Jews in his apartment. In this scheme of history, evil and suffering are not peculiar to Ukrainians but part of the human condition.

Besides history, Keefer and Melnyczuk both use ethnic institutions to delineate their characters and their respective social settings. Once again, the distinction between the two writers can be seen as that of an outsider on the one hand, and an insider on the other. Keefer's Toronto has a number of Ukrainian institutions, but by and large, the list is kept to those places that non-Ukrainians are most likely to identify. There is Bloor West Village, where Future Bakery offers a venue for Jews to discuss pogroms and Khmelnytskyi (50), and the unspecified church hall (St Vladimir's on Barhurst?) which was later developed into a fine sleek cultural centre (the Kyiv oselia?) (127) and an equally unspecified Ukrainian Cultural Home (258) (Christie? or is it UNO on College?), and a very mediocre ethnic restaurant, perhaps deliberately camouflaged by moving from Dundas and Kipling to the Old Mill Subway stop (100). Local Toronto geography is appropriately cast in an ethnic mapping. Robarts library is a place where Ukrainians are (or at least used to be) quite familiar. Of course, our Slavic Department here is simply the hub of the Ukrainian universe. We remember Olya Pavlenko Moroz as one of our old students (97). The playground in High Park beside Parkside drive (since rebuilt with great community participation) is a place where an elderly Ukrainian could easily observe children without calling attention to himself (9). Conversely, Suzy Frost's expertly renovated brick townhouse in the Annex is precisely where an upwardly mobile professional would run away from her Ukrainian roots.

Keefer's plot does not give her that many opportunities to present Ukrainians in Toronto. She moves much of the action away from centres of Ukrainian ethnicity in Canada--to Northern Ontario and to Ukraine. Furthermore, hers is a novel of personal, not social experiences. Nevertheless, the informed reader feels that the community is only partially portrayed. There are references to heritage dance classes, the old labour temple, and ethnic food, but there is no reference to the ethnic press or ethnic churches as important social organizations. There are no community events, local politicians, or weddings, funerals or baptisms. Even gossip seems to be limited to the ostracism of the Moroz family when Mr Moroz joins the labour temple in order to be admitted back into Ukraine. Ukrainian day at Ontario place, rallies on Nathan Philips square, Ted Woloshyn, Luba Goy, and Ukrainian Boxing Day are just a few of the trivial details that could have easily found a place in this novel, but don't. Keefer has chosen to portray the Ukrainian community through it's most visible attributes.

In this respect, Melnyczuk's novel is quite different. The institutional life of the Ukrainian community in What is Told is depicted at some depth, although he focuses most of his attention on the domestic scene in the Vorog household. Melnyczuk characteristically masks many Ukrainian institutions under transparently similar names. Thus we find Stefan Zabobon unsuccessfully trying to reach the cemetery at Red Brook, New Jersey, which must be remarkably close to South Bound Brook. The UNA's Soyuzivka resort in the Catskills (or is this the UFA's Verkhovyna?) gets renamed the Carpathians, a juxtaposition that can be heard almost every day on the Veselka balcony above the pool. Mr. Holowniski, proprietor (160), could well be the late Mr. Walter Kwas, while Semenko the beekeeper (163) sounds a little like Vasyl' Barka. Other institutions are named outright in the novel. The Ukrainian Credit Union (139) holds the mortgage on the Vorog house. Stefan likes to visit the Shevchenko Scientific Society on Second Avenue (144). Here Melnyczuk is either forgetful or deliberately relocating the NTSh building from Fourth Avenue to the site of the bigger and better known Ukrainian National Home on Second Avenue, which is mentioned separately (103).

As in Keefer's novel, the geography of ethnicity extends beyond exclusively Ukrainian objects. The NYPL reading room on 42nd St. (144), State Route 22 in New Jersey (189), which was in fact the route to South Bound Brook before the interstate was finished, and Cape May, New Jersey are, indeed, places where Ukrainians are characteristically found. Unlike Keefer, Melnyczuk gives his characters a wealth of specifically ethnic activity. In their free time they listen to Radio Free Europe on their Blaupunkt radios. On Sundays they go to church where they hear their pastor talk up the pirohy sale (1116). This priest, by the way, must be a Ukrainian from the first emigration. Father Joe Brodin is a coal miner's son from Wilowburg, PA who wanted to play baseball until an injury sidelined him But I shall not indulge myself here with a digression on the assimilatory influences of the Basilian order. When they're through praying they eat paska and holubci (111). If they're not at the Carpahians resort or in Cape May, they might be at a funeral singing Vichnaya Pamyat (196) or at a wedding with bandurists playing (192). Thanksgiving sometimes goes uncelebrated (175) but Christmas eve has an elaborate ritual (190). For the children, there are costume balls (110) the Ukrainian Boy Scouts and Saturday Schools (114). All in all, for a short book, these characters are kept pretty busy.

The last of our ethnic indices is Language. In many ways, this is a crucial indicator, since it is the factor sine qua non for an ethnic minority to maintain links to its national culture in the home country. Of course, in an English work of fiction, ethnic language is a peculiar problem. Both of our authors, however, take up this challenge. In Keefer's The Green Library there are numerous instances of Ukrainian words in the text. The Ukrainian dancers count ras-i-dva-i-ras-i-dva. (127) When Eva Chown introduces herself to Olya Pavlenko, the latter exclaims: "'Bozhe miy.' And a whole flow of words Eva makes no attempt to halt, never mind to understand." (93) As this brief citation shows, language is a barrier between Eva and her Ukrainian acquaintances. This barrier can work in a number of ways. Oksana Moroz changes her name to Susan Frost to escape her ethnicity but Eva berates herself for not recognizing the translated name.

The most significant use of Ukrainian in the novel occurs in the relationship between Eva and Alex. Here again, language is a barrier:

"Teach me some of the language," she says over dinner one night at a restaurant. He gives her a few necessary words, writing them out phonetically on a scrap of table napkin. She is utterly defeated. Things that are simple in English turn out to be impossibly polysyllabic. "Pleased to meet you" is duzhe preiemno zvamy poznaiometesia. "Excuse me is pereproshuyu. Even "good-bye" is something like dopobachenia. (160)

The estrangement that language puts between them is gradually overcome in a series of word pairs that constitute her language lesson. But the issue comes up again at her departure from Kiev, when she feels she has been used badly by Alex and yells back at him: "There are two things you never taught me how to say in Ukrainian, Alex. 'I love you.' And 'Fuck you.'" (215) Near the end of the novel Eva receives a letter from Alex that begins: "'Fuck you' has no literal equivalent in Ukrainian. We'd say 'shchob ty zdokh'." (262) This linguistic information serves to re-connect the star crossed lovers by suggesting, again, that it is language and culture that forms the barrier between them, not feelings, intentions, or behavior. But as we all know, this information is false. Anyone who believes that Ukrainian has no equivalent for the F word has a very sanitized notion of Ukrainian culture.

The difficulty in pronouncing Ukrainian words and the prettified vocabulary create what is likely an unintended distinction between Ukrainian readers of Keefer's novel and non-Ukrainians. Ukrainian speaking readers of the novel must overcome their own knowledge to understand the text. For them, it is not only Eva Chown who is an outsider to Ukrainian culture.

Melnyczuk's approach is different. What is Told is told, quite literally, in two languages. Where Keefer glosses Ukrainian words when she uses them, Melnyczuk often does not. From the very first sentence, where Rozdorizha and Zabobon are not glossed, Melnyczuk creates a two tiered text where there are different levels depending on the knowledge of the reader. Unlike the intertextual allusions of some modernists texts, however, these different levels of What is Told function adequately on their own. The presence of Ukrainian words estranges the reader from the characters in the novel. But, unlike the difficult pronunciation in Keefer's novel, the strangeness of language in What is Told is simply a quality of its foreignness. The Ukrainianness of the Ukrainians is treated as a perfectly normal condition. The reader is invited to join this community, even if its language is not always comprehensible.

To the Ukrainian reader, on the other hand, Melnyczuk's text is a lighthearted invitation to view themselves from an estranged perspective. By naming characters suggestively (Zabobon, Vorog, Lastivka, Mamaliga) Melnyczuk creates an ironic distance between the text and the Ukrainian reader. Like the non-Ukrainian, they are forced to stand back and look objectively. And then there are the tidbits of pure emigratsija, peculiarities of speech that millions of Ukrainians in Ukraine would likely not understand: stuk-puk (165) and kookoo-na-moonyu (113). These emigreisms are, to some extent, the perfect synecdoche for the whole novel. The foreignness and the strangeness of the foreign is only a peculiarity and a quaintness. The ethnic Ukrainian is merely an instance of a larger species of strange and wonderful creatures.

Thus we return to where we began: two ethnic novels, one each from Canada and the US. The similarities between them in the treatment of history, institutions and language do indeed go a long way in illuminating characteristic features of the Ukrainian community in both countries. But the views they present are exclusively those of their authors. Janice Kulyk Keefer gives us a view of the Ukrainian community through the eyes of an outsider. But she is, in fact, proudly Ukrainian, as her recent memoir, Honey and Ashes (Toronto: Harper Flamingo Canada, 1998), makes clear. Nevertheless, she is not part of the community she describes. Perhaps what makes this novel characteristically Canadian, is that it presents a portion of the Ukrainian community from the perspective of another portion of the Ukrainian community, where the latter is, to a considerable degree, equivalent to Canadian society at large. Askold Melnyczuk, on the other hand, is indeed an insider in the Ukrainian community, as his narrative suggests. But his novel is not a product of this community nor is it intended for it. His novel belongs in the realm of intellectual fiction and it is targeted at a universal audience, to whom he presents an ethnic community as a nostalgic portrait of a quaint order of humanity. That's hardly a view I would ascribe to American society or its Ukrainian component. Keefer and Melnyczuk show us, in their parallels what binds the Ukrainian community in our two countries, but in their differences they exemplify only themselves.

Maxim Tarnawsky


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