||Right Up To Date
by Joel Yanofsky
IN THE LAST few years, change in Eastern Europe is really the only thing
anyone Call count (11. Which is probably why I assumed that Myrna Kostash`s new hook,Bloodlines: A Journey into Eastern Europe, wouldbe by now completely out of date, particularly since it is based, in largepart, on two separate trips the Edmonton author made to Czechoslovakia,Yugoslavia, Poland, and Ukraine in 1984 and then again in 1988. Instead, theopposite is true Bloodlines is allforeshadowing.
Kostash draws our attention to thegathering clouds in Eastern Europe -- to the forces of dissidenceand discontent, hope and hatred that were about to be unleashed with thecollapse of the Soviet empire. With a keen eye and intrepid curiosity, Kostashchronicles the storm before the storm. And although I did have some seriousproblems with the narrative style of the book it is put together like a collage-- Bloodlines containsa wealth of information and insight into a part of the world that seems to begrowing more and more incomprehensible every day.
"I did not know in 1988 thateverything was about to change," Kostash says in her introduction,"and so this is not a book about revolution. This is a book aboutmemory."
Memory mixed with politics. As a self-described"second -generation Ukrainian-Canadian, a feminist, a writer,an alumna of the 1960s," Kostash travelled to Eastern Europe expecting to beinspired by the revolutionary spirit of the people she meets. But what shediscovered in Czechoslovakia -- described in the opening chapter ofthe book -- is something subtler, more pragmatic, and ultimatelymore inspiring. Here, for instance, is a description of what it was like to bea member of the famous Czech dissident organization, Charter 77, circa 1984,one you could only get from someone who had participated in it:
The tumult of revolution is notnecessary. Be modest, be patient. Conserve your energy. Be kind and courteous,do not shove each other around in the queues or scowl across the meat counteror cheat one another.
Kostash has a knack for being in theright places at the right times; she also has a knack for finding the rightpeople to talk to. One of Kostash`s plans in conceiving Bloodlineswas to interview writers of hergeneration, and this proved to be a wise plan. In Yugoslavia, for example, shemet Milan, a Serbian writer, just as his final hopes for a united and peacefulnation are beginning to crumble. Milan reduces the complicated, bloodysituation that exists in what`s left of his country today to one simple,powerful analogy. It`s as if, he tells Kostash, "you pulled a nail out ofa house and [the house] fell apart, but you don`t care. You`ve got yournail." In Yugoslavia, Kostash also came to realize just how incapableCanadians, herself included, are of understanding what lies behind the tragicevents we see on the news every evening:
The twenty-some years the sixrepublics had been hammered together in political and social union seemed quitelong enough to me for them to have become "Yugoslavia." Only someonefrom the New World would think twenty years was a long time.
Similarly, someone from the New Worldcould hardly help but be obsessed with what Kostash refers to as "Historywith a capital H." But where the situation in Yugoslavia, even in the1980s, was already hopeless, in Poland during the same period anything seemedpossible:
Even under martial law, the total numberof uncensored publications is several times greater than the sum of samizdatpublications produced in all the other Soviet bloc countries put together... [In Poland] the "dissident" is the only sane person around. Itis the communists who are crazy.
If there is one thing that links all thedisparate parts of the shifting narrative in Bloodlines, itis the sense that the past -"History with a capital H" --is always intruding on the present and shaping the future. Kostash fills thebook with visits to monuments, cemeteries, and gravesites. Old legends areincluded side by side with reportage of more contemporary events. There arealso flashbacks to Kostash`s memories of growing up in an immigrant Ukrainiancommunity in Canada, as well as flashforwards to some of the dramatic eventsthat have occur-red since 1988. Unfortunately, this technique doesn`talways work. Put simply, the book is full of interruptions and digressions --sometimes they are fascinating, sometimes they are just distracting. Often, itis hard to keep track of all the people (and all of their stories) Kostashintroduces. Henry James said that "it takes a great deal of history toproduce a little literature." Bloodlines maybe a rare exception to that rule. In this case, there seems to be too muchhistory, and Kostash seems, at times, to be overwhelmed by it. The question is,given the same circumstances, who wouldn`t be? That`s why Bloodlines,despite its faults, is an admirably ambitious book. That may also he why the bookis best when Kostash`s focus is personal. Perhaps the most moving chapter in Bloodlinesis the one on Ukraine.Here, Kostash revisits her roots and wrestles bravely with the questions thatare at the heart of the book, questions such as:
How does the "old country" liveon in the citizens of the new? How may I understand these people and theirextraordinary history -- my blood relations, as it were, from whomI was separated by the accident of being born into the new family line inCanada?... In other words, what has this part of the world got to do with me?
Bloodlinesis, as Kostash says, heranswer.