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Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex Paperback – Jun 6 2011
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About the Author
Oksana Zabuzhko was born in 1960 in Ukraine. She made her poetry debut at the age of 12, yet, because her parents had been blacklisted during the Soviet purges of the 1970s, it was not until the perestroika that her first book was published. She graduated from the department of philosophy of Kyiv Shevchenko University, obtained her PhD in philosophy of arts, and has spent some time in the USA lecturing as a Fulbright Fellow and a Writer-in-Residence at Penn State University, Harvard University, and University of Pittsburgh. After the publication of her novel "Field Work in Ukrainian Sex" (1996), which in 2006 was named “the most influential Ukrainian book for the 15 years of independence”, she has been living in Kiev as a free-lance author. She has authored 17 books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, which have been translated into fifteen languages. Among her numerous acknowledgments are the Global Commitment Foundation Poetry Prize (1997), MacArthur Grant (2002), Antonovych International Foundation Prize (2008), the Ukrainian National Award, the Order of Princess Olha (2009), and many other national awards.
About the Translator:
Halyna Hryn is an author, translator, editor, and researcher. She is the editor of "Hunger by Design: The Great Ukrainian Famine and Its Soviet Context," translator of the novels "Peltse and Pentameron" by Volodymyr Dibrova, editor of the journal "Harvard Ukrainian Studies," and a lecturer at Harvard's Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. She received her PhD from the University of Toronto. Her research interests center on Soviet Ukrainian literature and cultural politics of the 1920s. Hryn received the 2011 Best Translation Prize of the American Association for Ukrainian Studies.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Fear oozed in from the outside like caustic fumes, but inside the house it was warm, sultry in fact, teenage depression, no, neurasthenia, some kind of stupid pills, fever stuck at 99.2, tears umpteen times a day, the lady doctor told you to undress and asked Daddy to leave the room “she’s a big girl already”—and you were shocked that Daddy, rather than defend his paternal right—after all, it was his child that was about to be examined!— shuffled to the door in humiliation, flustered and dwarfed as if caught red-handed (the curious thing, she tells herself with the imperturbability of a surgeon, is that he really was a good-looking guy, talkative, witty, and ready to embrace life, and women liked him, and there would have been absolutely no problem finding some action outside the house, so why did he guard his chastity like some Galician old maid, was it not because mother married him still before he was “rehabilitated” and he spent his whole life cowering, afraid he hear her say aloud what he was secretly tormenting himself with within—that he ruined her life? But to be left alone, without her, he was afraid of that, too, wasn’t he). And by way, this time they only charged him with “willful unemployment,” keeping him for only 24 hours in the district jail and sending him out after that only as a night watchman to a construction site where he sat in a glass booth opening gates for dump trucks and the rest of the time reading Bruno Schulz, about whom he was going to someday write a book but never did get around to it (he had pretty good taste in literature, except that he couldn’t stand any hint of eroticism, like the Catholic Index)—his panic at her unrestrained growth—“Hey, stop that!"—settled into his insides and slowly sawed away at them with a dull blade, but they only diagnosed cancer when it was too late to operate, his whole reproductive system was affected: prostate, testes (every day Mother grated carrots for juice and squeezed them by hand, twisting the ball of mash through a piece of cheesecloth, her fingers, which had once strummed a guitar, acquired a permanent yellow color and could be straightened only with effort, and at nights Daddy’s girl would run to the phone booth down the block to call the ambulance, and so when mother, her eyes white with horror, returned from the hospital one day with news of the diagnosis, which at all costs was to be kept a secret from Daddy, the first thought that flashed through your head [which you would never ever forgive yourself], was a cold and merciless, hissed through clenched teeth: Thank God!). In fact, it was nothing less than war, a war in which there could be no winners because, having exhausted all means to get his way (pin ‘em down with your knee, shove ‘em into the crib, “she’s just a child,” we wanted a boy, but that’s okay, she turned out a smart tough cookie and she’ll show them all!) —having done all that, the man resorts to the ultimate weapon, death, and that does the trick, you lay down your arms and you go over to his side. And your adolescence, which you swore you would never again re-live, it catches up with you twenty years later, releasing from the darkest recesses of your being a tearful and frightened teenage girl who takes over completely, and then it and laughs at you long and hard: “What, thought you could get away?... Didn’t get too far, did you?”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
As much as anything, this book is a long letting loose of emotion following a sexually intense but ultimately abusive relationship with a painter named Mykhola. She knew Mykhola was trouble the first time she met him. As he talked to her, setting up his later seduction of her, he casually twisted her fingers back almost to the breaking point, establishing his dominance of her while inflicting gratuitous pain. Later he progressed to verbal abuse and threats and he burned her with cigarettes. Hyper-charged fragments of Zabuzhko's poetry are interspersed throughout the book, providing counterpoint to the story of sexual enthrallment and abuse she is telling:
Something has shifted in the world:
someone was crying
Out my name at night as though
from a torture chamber
And someone rustled leaves on the porch,
Tossed and turned, and could not fall asleep:
I was learning the lessons of parting....
Zabuzhko flings out one metaphor after another, writing prose like a poet writes poetry. Some of them work, some don't, but the effect builds up, creating a dense, allusive, emotionally intent portrait of a woman and what has befallen her in a doomed relationship. (Zabuzhko's troubles don't end with the painter. She wants to be seen as a person but repeatedly falls into relationships where she is diminished.) The rush of poetized language she creates is a kind of hyperbolic venting. Some passages fail: overwritten, clunkiy, awkward use of imagery. Why, for instance, on page 15, does "we" transmute into "his or her" twice over, in the same passage, and why use "its own life" when the pronoun signifies not an `it,' but "hundreds of men"? But these are trivial excesses, or errors, in a book that deliberately courts disaster on every page, but by virtue of the poet's clearheaded view of herself and her control of her language, never stops moving forward, and ultimately, creates a wholly original and highly affecting portrait of the complicated creature that was Oksana Zabuzhko in her mid-thirties, when this novel was written.
SECOND THOUGHTS After reading Roger Brunyate's correspondence with me concerning the book, I began having second thoughts about having assigned the book five stars so I reread large chunks of it. I think Roger is right: it is too uneven to merit five stars. So I have changed my rating to four stars. I still believe it is highly original and it will probably be one of the handful of books I will recommend to friends at the end of the year.
Part of the reason is the theme running through it that can roughly be summarized as follows: I come from a nation with a long history of oppression, moral and well as political; oppression bleeds away the sense of joy; sex without joy cannot long endure as love; thus my country's history of oppression, and the oppression with which I grew up have robbed me of love, making crucial forms of emotional authenticity and personal identity problematic for me. This is also the theme lying beneath Milan Kundera's phenomenal The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by the way. I'm no expert on eastern European literature (and psyches) but in 2009, I reviewed a memoir by a Bulgarian poet, Kapka Kassabova, entitled Street Without a Name. Both Zabuzhko and Kassabova point to ways that their separate countries' histories of oppression deformed the people. Street Without a Name, by the way, is a fascinating read, and at times, hilariously funny. And Kundera's Book is, in my mind, one of the best, if not THE best, book he has written.
A seriously flawed woman in a seriously flawed love affair with a seriously flawed man is the foreground story. That they come from a seriously flawed society, Ukraine formed by Soviet rule, is the background story.
The (single chapter) narrative is primarily the stream of consciousness eruptions by the author's alter ego (the seriously flawed woman). They form vignettes, and need to be accumulated and reassembled for the temporal progression of the story. There are periodic interruptions by the author who provides a third person, retrospective, commentary on the alter ego. The conceit of commentary is that it is a lecture to assembled academics; the author repeatedly acknowledges to them that they are probably not interested in the topic.
Early in the book I was reminded of Kundera, but that proved ultimately to be a poor analogy.* Kundera wrote of the central emptiness of the Czech experience under communism. He wrote of the ennui of an educated Czech, and his characters responded with hedonism. There is an element of fantasy in his work.
Zabuzhko, on the other hand, views Ukraine as a place of once great culture rendered banal by Soviet rule. The response of her alter ego is self-destructive behavior and incoherent rage. Such incoherent rage may have been novel in Ukraine fifteen years ago. (And it may have expressed a rage many of its readers also felt.) I think it has been long overdone in English, and that alone takes away from experience of this book.
I understand why, for some readers, pushing themselves through a challenging reading experience such as this one causes them to feel sympathy for the author and pride in their own sophistication; they may then conflate that with this being a great book.
I've been down this road too many times. This was an interesting book to observe. I do not, however, consider it a great book. If you have an interest in eastern European literature, especially that of or inspired by the Soviet era, you may find this book interesting. Most readers will not.
That said, I am curious to see if the catharsis of writing this book freed Zabuzhko to produce something less overwhelmed by personal emotion in her subsequent work. It appears that a translation of another of her novels is in work.
* I read the book before reading that the author considers Kundera an important influence.
the telling of a love story on the skids. she's a poet and professor and he's a painter. they knew each other in kyiv, ukraine. she arrived in cambridge, mass first, a year later he followed. the relationship did not work out. there's life in the usa to blame, there's ukraine, there's her childhood, there's her father's past of a slave's existence under soviet rule.
clotted words, a slow onrush of run on sentences. paragraphs open to close pages later. the narrator, switches voice when speaking about herself from first person to third person, scarcely signaling, running her novella length monologue without chapter break willy nilly present to past, scenes spoken as remembered, as they make sense, as they fit her depression, cambridge, kyiv, jerusalem. picking up speed, her tone keens and screams like lina wertmueller films, like jazz novels by black writers in the 60s and 70s, hushed from literary memory (find clarence major's All-Night Visitors and carlene hatcher polite's The Flagellants, for examples).
so many similarities between oksana the narrator and oksana the author of Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, philip roth's The Counterlife is never far from thought: where does fact end and fiction begin?
within the pages, oksana reads toni morrison and garcia marquez, and she paraphrases the first lines of Ecclesiastes and The Dunio Elegies. like most cosmopolitans, she remains loyal to her homeland: `...the Ukrainian choice is a choice between nonexistence and an existence that kills you, and that all of our hapless literature is merely a cry of someone pinned down by a beam in a building after an earthquake - I'm here! I'm still alive! - but unfortunately, the rescue teams are taking their time ...'
so much goes wrong in life, but she endures and observes in small rooms and the spaces of the place, the country, everyone wants to come to: ...the open expanse, prairies without cowboys, a light taste of madness, which flickers among the nighttime flashes of billboards: the mind, frightened of its own creation, because this civilization is entirely man-made and that's why you've got the somnambulant's aching longing of the saxophone, poured like the light of the moon over the desert, the ... voice of a jazz-club singer, which pulls your soul out of your body with each languorous twist: I'm alone in this big city ... we are all alone here, free and alone, it's wonderful - to build your life on your own, it's frightening - to build your life on your own, you'll see up close the faces brought together, the hues and tints ... ` and all the rest of it.
the author, oksana zabuzhko, in interview accepts the comparison of her work to that of milan kundera. from this side of the ocean, to start with, we might suggest jack kerouac.
A reader barely has time to catch a breath in the course of the unrelenting stream of consciousness narrative of an expat Ukrainian woman, child of the Soviet enslavement of her homeland, writer and lover, contemplating suicide as the logical extrapolation of authorship. Page-long parenthetical descriptions cascade between snippets of poetry as the author explores the attractions and repulsions of a damaged and damaging love affair, the lure of danger and its rootedness in her relationship with her parents: a stymied academic mother whose career was wrecked by the dissident father, shipped to the Gulag,and blacklisted on release. We are witness to the psychological demolition of a nation and its repercussions in the generations that ensue, the mental starvation that accompanied the famine of 1933, and the pervasive hopelessness that still lingered in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse.
The book partakes of both Virginia Woolf and Kurt Vonnegut, the first for its themes of relational discord and suicidal leanings, the latter for his dark view of 20th century history. A brilliant first novel, this was published in the Ukraine in 1996 and is only now available in English. Absolutely breathtaking.