- The Disappearing Sickness:The Representation of Ukrainians and Ukraine in Fiction from Canada, the United States, and Ukraine
Early in his novel Ambassador of the Dead, Askold Melnyczuk describes a bizarre disease called the “disappearing sickness” in which one’s “skin would begin turning transparent until it seemed to have evaporated, leaving only a pulsing heap of vessels, muscles, and burgundy organs” (42). Only screaming keeps the ill person from disappearing altogether. The doctor explains that this is the organism’s way of adapting to the world and that, eventually, the disease cures itself. One day, Melnyczuk tells us, the patient’s “screams turned into words” (43) and he was healed. To one degree or another, all of the books under review here portray versions of the disappearing sickness, a metaphorical representation of the plight of Ukraine and its people throughout much of its history.
Problems with its sense of national identity began early for Ukraine: tracing its emergence as a nation to Rus’ and its ancient capital city, Kyiv. Ukraine kept the location and the city, but lost the name to the soon dominant Russians, who trace their ancestry to the same source and began to view the Ukrainians left behind (“on the border’s edge,” as the name “Ukraine” suggests) as less important versions of themselves. Continuously divided among various warring conquerors throughout the [End Page 343] early modern era, Ukraine, as a country and as a people, has been constantly submerged within these larger imperial identities. Poland, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire each held significant portions of this land, and in the twentieth century, the fluidity of the borders in this region was particularly dizzying. A person born before World War One in what is now Lviv, Ukraine, for example, would have been an Austro-Hungarian citizen born in Lemberg with German serving as the language of the elite; between the World Wars, that person would have been a Polish citizen born in the city of Lwów and educated in Polish; during World War Two, the birth would have once again taken place in Lemberg, now part of the Greater German Reich; and from 1945–1990, the person would have been a citizen of the Russian-controlled Soviet Ukraine, the birth town called Lvov, and the favored language would have been Russian. Only in the final decade of the twentieth century, with the exception of a few years after the first World War, has Ukraine been recognized as a truly independent nation, and even that was hard to come by, with foreign leaders like the first President Bush urging Ukrainians not to break away from their “brothers” to the north.
The Ukrainians of the diaspora have had similar problems of identity in their adopted new homelands, particularly in North America. Like most white ethnic groups in the United States, Ukrainians became “assimilated” into the great melting pot of whiteness. In the United States, the term “multicultural” tends to refer to what in Canada were called “visible minorities,” and are often limited to explorations of color rather than of national origin. And national origin was particularly problematic for Ukrainians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Often identified by the provinces from which they came, rather than by their ethnic nationality, these immigrants to the new world were known, not as Ukrainians, but as Galicians, Bukovinians, Ruthenians, and, perhaps most of all, as “bohunks,” a derogatory term suggesting a kind of national mongrelization.1 So little were they recognized as a distinct group that Ukrainian immigrants to Canada who were born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were herded into camps as “enemy aliens” by the country that had courted them so assiduously before World War One. Even that...