'Forgottenness' wrestles with the meaning of Ukrainian identity — and time
Ukraine has been in the headlines daily since the latest Russian invasion in 2022.
Now in Forgottenness -- a cryptic, haunting novel meant to be read in this moment — award-winning Ukrainian writer Tanja Maljartschuk wrestles with the meaning of Ukrainian identity. In the book, she also probes the elasticity of time — and the idea that it eventually erases all identities, national and personal.
The novel follows two threads: the biography of Polish-Ukrainian social and political activist Viacheslav Lypynskyi (1882-1931) and a fictional memoir by a Ukrainian writer-narrator, whose name we do not learn. The narrator makes clear that she never met Lypynskyi; such a meeting would have been impossible, as the narrator was born after 1931.
Both characters tend toward hypochondria. The narrator struggles with depression, agoraphobia, and obsessive-compulsive behavior. Lypynskyi is a "mad tubucular consumptive." Lypynskyi earned a place in history, while the narrator says she is "just a person who manipulates words and ideas...I can write, or I can remain silent." She is epically lonely, obsessing over LLypynskyi as she obsesses over disappointments in family, love, health, and politics. She grapples with her diminishing grip on the real world.
Ukraine has been fought over for generations, if not centuries. Forgottenness aims to get at the soul of this struggle. When the narrator discovers Lypynskyi via his obituary in the Ukrainian language newspaper Svoboda [meaning "liberty"], she commits to studying his life. Lypynskyi becomes the vehicle to express the narrator's longing for Ukraine's mythic identity, and her sense of loss over it. Knowledge of Ukrainian history is not necessary to experience the author's skill at the task she sets for her narrator.
Lypynskyi, who was born in Poland with Ukrainian ancestry, changes his name to the Ukrainian spelling (Waclaw to Viacheslav), embraces the Ukrainian cause, and seeks out people in the Ukrainian diaspora to spur a movement of rebirth. Unsurprisingly, he runs into divergent views about what it means to be Ukrainian. At one point he argues that "Poles don't have to stop being Poles to be Ukrainian." He develops a theory called "territorialism," to reconcile his Polish heritage with his Ukrainian "calling." The future, he argues, should be common land, in contrast to common blood. Inhabitants of this future state will unite in the land's interests, "irrespective of ancestry, land, faith, or occupation."
With irony, the narrator expresses surprise that Lypynskyi's plan to surmount enmity only engenders greater enmity. It will not be lost on readers how closely these aspirations over lost land resonate with current events.
What does the title Forgottenness mean? The cover shows an analogue clock with its numbers fallen to the bottom. Time is fluid in this book. Time is also the star of the book. In a reflection of her deepening depression, the narrator writes that time "devours me along with all my thoughts, experiences, and memories, but I'm not enough... It needs an endless supply of those like me — billions of minuscule, almost invisible worlds." Forgottenness, it seems, applies to both individuals and national identities. By the end, the relentlessness of time and forgottenness become congruent.
The narrator toggles back and forth between chapters labeled "him" and chapters labeled "me." Several chapters labeled "us" show the narrator merging the two protagonists' lives together in her head.
The narrator goes through relationships with three "golden-haired" men, although she likes not "only" men. She is about to marry the third, when he becomes alarmed about her health. "What happened?" he asks when he finds her in a puddle of dirty water. "What happened is that I'll never go outside again," she answers, saying she finally feels at peace. Reduced to a life of mopping her floor and reading old newspapers, the narrator's shut-in life feels like a commentary on life as a woman, as well as life in Ukraine.
The narrator's rendering of Lypynskyi seems the perfect foil to her own musings. Despite her meticulous attention to the details of his life, the narrator asks: "Why did he, Lypynskyi, even exist?" Perhaps she is asking about all existence, including and especially hers.
The narrator's malaise and weakening attachment to time serve as a metaphor for today's Ukraine, as well as for other struggling democracies, including our own. Toward the end she writes, "As years passed, I seemed to have less and less innate freedom left. I had been born with a big orb inside me, filled with freedom, like gas, but gradually my inborn supply of freedom leaked out, seeping into the surrounding expanse..." Forgottenness is a book that begs questions that are impossible to answer.
Martha Anne Toll is a D.C.-based writer and reviewer. Her debut novel, Three Muses, won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and was shortlisted for the Gotham Book Prize. Her second novel, Duet for One, is due out May 2025.
Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.