The Jew Who Was Ukrainian is a blackly comedic, anti-historical, and absurdist novel about a tortured Jewish-Ukrainian man who struggles vainly to find meaning at the intersection of Hitler’s Holocaust and Stalin’s Gulag. The hero of this preposterous story is Volodymyr Frauenzimmer, a man with a preposterous name and a preposterous past. His Ukrainian mother was a Nazi concentration camp guard and hates Jews. His Jewish father was a Stalinist butcher and hates Ukrainians. Poor Volodymyr doesn’t know how to cope with his dreadful past until he discovers the redeeming power of hatred and resolves to kill the Exceptionally Great Leader of Mother Russia—the fish-eyed Pitoon, a half-Russian, half-German dictator whose name happens to “rhyme with spittoon.” In attempting to carry out his plot, the “Jew who was Ukrainian” consorts with long-dead Jewish and Ukrainian assassins and their victims, the owner of the fashionable Gulag restaurant in Moscow, and a cast of bizarre characters—including Lenin. The Jew Who Was Ukrainian combines a variety of genres: third-person narrative, first-person monologues, play-like dialogues, and excerpts from magazine accounts.
Alexander gives an overview of the book:
Chapter 1 The master narrative begins logically, if insidiously, as Volodymyr comes face to face with a variety of deeply disturbing, and arguably unique, problems involving language, names, history, guilt, responsibility, hatred, assassination, and other mundane things How a preposterous name got poor Volodymyr into hot water even before he was fully aware, or even capable of being fully aware, of just how hot hot water can really be and of just how unpleasant life can become in the aftermath of total immersion, not in a language or culture, but in hot water Volodymyr Frauenzimmer’s decision to rid the world of the exceptionally great leader of Mother Russia was made on a Friday, relatively late in the day, at a time that he usually felt remorse for not being in the least inclined to celebrate the Sabbath and, instead, devoted himself to cerebral pursuits—though generally not to thoughts of political adventurism. When he looked back on that fateful day—knowing full well that the word fateful, while quite accurate, was dreadfully hackneyed—he was always struck by the appropriateness of the passive voice. The fact was that he had not, strictly speaking, decided to eliminate the exceptionally great leader. Rather, the decision had been made for him. It was almost as if it had struck him like a bolt out of the blue (alas, another hackneyed phrase). Cast by whom or by what? That was easy: by God, by fate, by history, by his very nature. And, last but not least, by his preposterous name, the preposterous past it embodied, the tangled roots it had, and the preposterous present and future it entailed. Volodymyr knew that his name was preposterous—almost an insult, if one thought about it for any length of time, and he thought about it all the time—so the preposterousness of his preposterous name couldn’t fail to strike him as hard as Dempsey had struck Firpo. To be sure, Volodymyr fully appreciated its fine structure and rhythmic quality. Both his first and last names consisted of four syllables, and in both the emphasis was on the third. That, and the rhymed endings, made his name mellifluous. It didn’t exactly trip off one’s tongue; it flowed off it—not quite like milk and honey, but it flowed nonetheless, perhaps like the smoothly rounded pebbles that recede pell-mell into the ocean with a gentle wave. What made the name preposterous was something else, and it was obvious to anyone who knew anything about the etymologies of names. Only a Ukrainian would call himself Volodymyr, and only a Jew could be called Frauenzimmer. Things became worse if one understood German, as then there’d be no avoiding the awful realization that Frauenzimmer was an antiquated, and somewhat pejorative, term for woman, or Frau. Volodymyr Frauenzimmer was thus Volodymyr the Pejoratively Designated Woman, and the real Volodymyr could hardly take comfort in a name that only radical feminists or medieval historians might admire. His discomfort would only be compounded, much like the return on a long-term municipal bond, when his dyslexic friends transposed the syllables comprising his surname and produced, of all things, Zimmerfrauen—or maids—a name that, Volodymyr suspected, even radical feminists could not love.Volodymyr adopted various strategies for dealing with his preposterous name. At one point in his life he began introducing himself as V.F. and insisted that all his friends and acquaintances call him that as well. Vee-Eff appeared to have the ring of authority; it sounded like a moniker for some fat cat or well-heeled politico. But Vee-Eff worked only for a while, and Volodymyr noticed that something wasn’t quite kosher when, one day, a turban-clad Sikh shopkeeper who had always treated him with unnecessarily exaggerated respect appeared sullen and morose. When Volodymyr asked him what the matter was, he replied gruffly (though in that inimitable South Asian sing-song that belied the gruffness and struck Volodymyr as excessively familiar and slightly preposterous), “Do you take me for a carrier of night soil?” Just what that meant Volodymyr didn’t quite know, but he could guess that the shopkeeper’s feathers had been ruffled and that he had become one sad Sikh. Vee-Eff also provoked derision among his German friends, who pronounced it Fow-Eff and inquired how much he was being paid by the automobile manufacturer. Americans asked if he was a walking advertisement for a vegetable drink. A pal suggested he try Walter, but that seemed too mundane. Another friend suggested Wally, but that seemed downright silly, if not Californian. A Russian droog proposed he go with Vlad or Vladimir, but Volodymyr tearfully replied, “That would mean turning my back on the essence of my being.” Some Jewish chums marveled at Frauenzimmer and urged him to keep it, while others shook their heads in amazement at a name that reeked, as one put it, of “fried onions and boiled kasha.” Would Volodymyr considering shortening it? a Finno-Ugric girlfriend named Bobo asked. But Frau or Frauen seemed even more preposterous than Frauenzimmer, and Zimmer—though more commonplace as a last name—produced, when appended to Volodymyr, an extended mumble, volodimmerzimmer, that seemed no better than Volodymyr Frauenzimmer. In the end, Volodymyr gave up and decided to accept the name he had, the name he had been given by his mother and by his father. His parents were another source of deep concern. Volodymyr’s mother was Ukrainian, and that accounted for the Volodymyr. And Volodymyr’s father was Jewish, and that accounted for the Frauenzimmer. Volodymyr knew little about them, except that she had been a translator for the German Wehrmacht during World War II and that he had been a decorated officer of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. They apparently met in less than auspicious circumstances, in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, and either fell in love or did not; in any case, they obviously made love, at least once, and the product of that crossing of both paths and loins was, nine months later, after the guns had stopped booming across Europe, Volodymyr Frauenzimmer. Volodymyr knew one more thing about his parents. His Ukrainian mother hated Jews, while his Jewish father hated Ukrainians. Despite his appreciation of how symmetry could enhance the aesthetic appeal of bad art in general and dreadful architecture in particular, Volodymyr instinctively knew that too much existential symmetry could result in vicious contradictions. He struggled with that dialectic, eventually resolving it by coming to hate the exceptionally great leader. Hating him was one thing; bumping him off was quite another, of course. But as Volodymyr reflected on his long and tortuous road to that fateful decision that struck him like a bolt out of the blue, he knew that his past, or more exactly his parents’ past, or more exactly the past, was key to that step. That road was tortuous, but it was also long and convoluted—comprehensible in its ultimate import only in hindsight as the product of a long and convoluted history. At no step of the way could Volodymyr honestly say that he knew, or even suspected, that developments might lead him to a decision to rub out the exceptionally great leader of an exceptionally great country. Indeed, as Volodymyr thought about that winding road—he liked to imagine it as curving through green meadows and cool forests inhabited by round-eyed does and bushy-tailed rabbits—he understood that nothing could have ever led him to such a course of action. Who was he? A nobody with an odd name. And who was the exceptionally great leader? A powerful man with suntanned friends in all the European capitals, with bank accounts in Zürich and the Cayman Islands, and with spacious villas and armies of silent servants on the Côte d’Azur and Palm Beach. And why should a Ukrainian-Jewish boy with a preposterous name and a twisted personal history feel impelled to knock off the Big Kahuna? That was the mystery. Volodymyr’s name and parental background obviously had something to do with that decision. But not all. They couldn’t have been all. Volodymyr knew that, even when he could construct a satisfying explanatory narrative with a logically connected beginning, middle, and end. History, Volodymyr suspected, was just an ex post facto rationalization of the contingent and unexpected. So why shouldn’t he construct his own history in the same manner that historians—who actually get paid tidy sums for their measly efforts—do? There were at least eleven key characters in the story and all had to do with long-past events: his parents (one Jew and one Ukrainian), the Ukrainian Katorga, the half-Russian, half-German, half-Jewish Putschkin, the Russian Dostaevsky, two dead assassins (one Jew and one Ukrainian), their three victims (all Ukrainians), and, of course, the man without a country—Lenin. (Deep down, somewhere in the bowels of his soul, Volodymyr instinctively knew that no story could ever be complete without the intercession of the great Vladimir Ilich—even if, or perhaps especially if, his presence was marked by his conspicuous absence.) These people and their pasts were, Volodymyr decided, the necessary and sufficient conditions of his non-decision to bump off the exceptionally great leader. To the charge that they didn’t seem adequate to the causal job, Volodymyr invariably replied, “Who says? It’s my history and I’m the only one who can say what’s right and what’s not.” To the charge that an obsession with the past deprived him of what Beaubeau, a Parisian girlfriend with a penchant for betraying her hyperintellectual husband, called agency and subjectivity, Volodymyr countered, “Who says, Bozo? It’s my fucking subjectivity and I’m the only one who can say that I’m a fucking agent or not.” At that point, his interlocutors would usually abandon their protests—as much from indifference as from defeat and shock at his recourse to street language—and nod sagely. Volodymyr knew quite well that their nods signified nothing, that he had hardly persuaded them. But he didn’t care, or at least he never let on that he really cared, which was arguably the same thing in a universe that both seemed to be morally relative and arguably was or was not.
Alexander J. Motyl (b. 1953, New York) is a writer, painter, and professor. He is the author of four novels, Whiskey Priest, Who Killed Andrei Warhol, Flippancy, and The Jew Who Was Ukrainian; his poems have appeared in Counterexample Poetics, Istanbul Literary Review, Orion...