Book Review: Askold Melnyczuk's The House of Widows

Askold Melnyczuk in Vienna to launch his latest novel, The House of Widows

TVR Books | Guy Kiddey | December 2008 / January 2009

Hawelka at Noon

Where does character come from? When we write, is it about what we observe, or about what we are? In making sense of our lives, we create a narrative and so in part, we are all works of fiction.

I met Askold Melnyczuk in Cafe Hawelka in Vienna’s 1st District just before noon on a grey November morning with a pleasing sense of déjà vu. This is where the protagonist James his new novel, The House of Widows, likes to meet his friends and colleagues: "Hawelka at midday."

But to say this novel is only autobiographical would be too simple. Melnyczuk is a timeless man in many ways; the restrictions, the schedules, the obsession with time are not his concern. His terrain is memory, and the history of what has already lived. What changes is how it is understood. In the privacy of the mind, this is a notion that never alters.

James’s journey back through memory follows into the hearts of a dramatically separated family, where war and famine have intervened, taking him on a trip thousands of miles long. He reels in the years, with a culmination in Kiev where his grandmother Vera has chosen to die.

Such a recapitulation is increasingly common: ‘We’ in the west do it in times of crisis. It’s the eternal light at the end of the tunnel of what we can envision, as we lie on our deathbeds, or see the images of our existence flashing before our eyes as we drown. For Vera, such reconciliation is nothing new; she has spent her life attempting it.

"…Who’s got time to look back there [in America]? But for us it’s quite normal to look back," Melnyczuk said. "We don’t do it consciously. We just look around ourselves…" Life is a duration, not a sequence. This helps explain why he chose to live in Vienna.

Melnyczuk’s gentle manner is matched by a welcoming smile – and a commitment to precision and clarity. Even after our time together, communiques arrived to tweak observations, or add to a perspective.

"The problem is that we tend to see life in terms of sequence rather than duration," he said. "Life is not just one thing after another, it’s a development." This is the crucial purpose of the arts generally, and of literature; writing fiction is an aid to the examination of human perception." "In each person exist all human possibilities," he concludes - a notion that often strikes readers when they read Hermann Hesse for the first time; yes, man really does consist of "hundreds, no, thousands of souls." It is literature that can take us out of ourselves into the lives of others.

"We see everything in economic, technological terms," Melnyczuk says.  "Maybe if politicians and public figures admitted a need to acknowledge consciousness, the whole political climate would be far more rational." A remark made by former U.S. President Bill Clinton suddenly comes to mind: One "campaigns in poetry and governs in prose." George Bush just counselled to "go shopping." We’ll see what Barack Obama will exhort us to do in the end. Unity? Clarity? We’ll see.

The House of Widows is a challenging experiment in narrative technique, as the mode of address dances between first, second and third person. Idiomatically, the novel encompasses elements of Woolf’s stream of consciousness, Tolstoy’s reflective realism and Marquez’s magical splendour. In a challenge to itself, the novel is a history, while its very premise is the notion that writing history unavoidably trivialises the truth, and glosses over the horror.

"The most prevalent grammatical error is the lie," Melnyczuk said. As an instrument, language is monophonic. It can play each part in the orchestra, but the culmination of that music, that layered harmonic unity, exists only in our imaginations. This simplification is, in part, a failure of language. But Melnyczuk avoids hypocrisy in that the protagonist is merely a portal for the oral histories of his family. There can be no notion of historical individuality without a social context, and it is precisely this revitalised authenticity that is often lost.

Melnyczuk’s devices fully mirror the power and impact of this revival of sensation. James’ father is not even able to speak for himself; an invasive, omnipotent and dictatorial second person takes over his voice, and punches home his past.

Altogether, Melnyczuk’s writing is honest and direct. This is not a commentary; it is the exposure of truths we would prefer to ignore, the facts that put a spanner in the works, and complicate our assessments. Vera, from prostitution at the age of twelve, graduated to become patron of her own chain of brothels in Vienna- a highly lucrative business. On the ‘death train’ to Kiev, one of her girls comes along. Tamara is one of the many beautiful, long-legged eastern women who look west, and decide that the self-worth they feel there as an object of gratification is worth more than any measure of value at home. She voluntarily becomes a sex slave.

"What if she were your daughter… Would you like the thought of some punk using her, then leaving her to the dogs," Vera pressures? James has no answer.

The true emotion, the true significance of the life stories of those who figure in this novel- a father sexually abused, who commits suicide when triggered to confront the memory, a grandmother sold into prostitution, two pimping uncles, and all this in the context of a forgotten, disregarded Ukraine, a country of forgotten, disregarded people – seems unjustly portrayed between the comfortable covers of a novel.

It is rather an indictment of the compartmentalisation of history. Melnyczuk appeals for the acceptance of a revolving cycle of misery, glossed over by the superficiality of contemporary, albeit partial, gratification.

"History is like a dog from a rescue centre. You think that you’re its friend, but it still turns round to bite you."

The House of Widows is more than a novel. It is a philosophical discourse, an expose and a talented experiment in the possibilities of language. Though we cannot hear the amalgamation of sound, the rich harmonies and the dynamics, the clarity of each line gives us the foundation of a tapestry. To know these building blocks is progress; to share them and expose them, to play them all at the same time, is the truth of history, the personality of memory.

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