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Oksana Zabuzhko: Польові дослідження з українського сексу (Fieldwork In Ukrainian Sex)

If I were to sum up this book in a few words it would be Ukrainian lady lays it on the line. Our heroine, called Oksana, is a poet and visiting lecturer at Harvard. At the start of the book she has just broken up with Mykalo, her Ukrainian boyfriend, who is an artist and, judging by what she tells us, not a very nice person.

She is now living in a dingy flat in Cambridge and teaching at Harvard. The opening description of the flat sets the tone for the book. She has bought two potted plants but they are already dying, there are ants on the counter and the flat is tiny and shabby. She is not happy.

There are three main themes. The first is about Mykalo and her relationship with him. Related to that are her views on sex and men, which might be described as decidedly mixed but tending to the negative. Finally there is her life as a Ukrainian woman, particularly in a country and, indeed, a world where people barely know the country exists and are certainly unaware that Ukrainian is a separate language and not Russian.

She met Mykalo at an arts festival. He is brash (a small-town seducer… a provincial dandy she calls him with the benefit of hindsight). When he first shakes her hand, he bends her thumb back. This man is going to hurt you, she thinks. (One annoying feature is that she switches from first to second to third person at will when talking about herself.)

After they first have sex he says well, you’ve finally been properly fucked and, not unusually, the sex act is all about him. When he hurts her, which he does while having sex, he seems to neither know nor care. He generally had a very foggy notion of what you’re supposed to do with women’s breasts except perhaps pinch them. Despite this she does fall for him, even though he physically abuses her and demeans her. She even suggests they get married, which really scares him. He does not really love her: I know you loved me—you loved me as best you knew: inside yourself, not outside yourself, I got the crumbs under the table, just like that little mouse.

It is not easy. Basically, as we learn he is not for her and she must move on. (It is a truism – I do not know how accurate it is – that women move on when the relationship has gone sour while men only move on when there is a reason, often another woman (or man)). As she says How is it even possible to comprehend the world of those who contemplate their own sex organ in the third person? Early in the book we see her considering suicide (though probably not very seriously).

Not surprisingly, she is not very happy with men. It’s just that they all want to talk, splattering saliva and sperm they want a gulp of you. Men need to vanquish, to conquer, she says. they are violent. When she tells Mykalo it is over, he responds by saying if you were a man, I’d smash your face in! She also comments on the fact that women are far more dependent on a partner than men with this fucking dependency programmed into your body like a delayed-action bomb, with this craziness, this need to be transformed into moist, squishy clay kneaded into the earth’s surface (always, always liked the bottom position—sex from below, flat on your back. But she still wants sex: the wretched body is still alive, it’s demanding its rights, it’s dying from basic sex deprivation.

The other issue is being a Ukrainian. The book was published in 1996 when much of the world knew little about Ukraine. Where are you from?”—“Ukraine.”—“Where’s that? It gives rise to all sorts of problems. People assume that Russian is her mother tongue and are surprised that there is a Ukrainian language. Her first poem published in the US was written in English. However, it would have been easier to get one written in Russian published as there were, of course, more Russian than Ukrainian translators. And, of course, there were then virtually no Ukrainian authors translated into English. Even Gogol (who was Ukrainian) ahd the problem and he had to write in Russian and is known as a Russian writer. Your home is your language, a language only about a few hundred other people in the whole world can still speak properly.

There are a few other issues. Zabuzhko lived much of her life prior to writing this book in the Soviet Union, with all that that entailed. Our heroine’s father was sent to a camp. She did not like the Soviet Union. We were raised by men fucked from all ends every which way…our only choice, therefore, was and still remains between victim and executioner: between nonexistence and an existence that kills you. There is also the issue of being an author and she is quite critical of modern authors: I’m going to reveal a terrible secret to you now: art in our times is slowly going to the dogs because—it’s afraid.

There is no question that Zabuzhko comes out all guns blazing and rarely lets up. Mykalo and men in general take the bulk of the hits. Men do not understand women and all too often just use them as sex objects. Not an original thought but still with a considerable element of truth. Explain one thing to me. Explain it, because I just don’t seem to get it. Do you really think that if you have a hard-on and you don’t come right away this makes you a prince and the woman must kick her legs in the air and squeal with delight every time you deign to touch her?

It is easy to see why this book sold well in Ukraine and had success elsewhere: lots of sex and an author who really makes her strong views known, regardless of what others may think.

Publishing history

First published in 1996 by Згода (Zgoda)
First published in English in 2011 by Amazon Crossing
Translated by Halyna Hryn