The House of Widows
Askold Melnyczuk
St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2008
256 pp.; $16.00 (paper)

History’s neither a searchlight nor a camera: it’s a flickering candle we use to read the marks on the wall as we crawl from that cave where only shadows of images play.

—Askold Melnyczuk

BUDDHISTS HAVE an unusual view of history. On the one hand, we are always looking backward. We study ancient texts and traditions. Zen monks receive lineage papers tracing the dharma all the way back from teacher to teacher to the great historical Buddha, while Tibetan tulkus can trace their own spiritual lineage of past incarnations for centuries. On the other hand, we have the frequent metaphor of a stream, carrying us forward to enlightenment and, ultimately, to nirvana. We have the Buddha’s exhortation in the Heart Sutra to go beyond, to that other shore. Yet the Zen masters say that this other shore is simply our original nature. Enlightenment is our own prior condition, what the late Japanese thinker Masao Abe termed the “return which is simultaneously an advance.” History, in other words, is both our path and our destination.

Buddhist author Askold Melnyczuk’s bold, ambitious new novel spans vast swaths of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first, and is simultaneously a moving account of one man’s struggle with his own past and an illuminating meditation on our relationship—our obligation—to history and truth. In the opening pages of The House of Widows, a minor functionary at the American Embassy in Vienna receives a package. This “bulky manila mailer” sits uncomfortably on James Pak’s desk, sandwiched between various official files and Pak’s own unfinished memoir. It is a collection of secret testimonies recorded from U.S. soldiers in Iraq, “documentary evidence of unspeakable crimes” including “torture, beheadings, rape—the catalogue raisonné of all wars.” So what should he do? And why has someone smuggled these files to him, the forty-year-old Assistant to the U.S. Counsel of Public Affairs—“merely an ashtray” in the diplomatic world? As he asks himself: “Why pass such ugly truths on to the public, whose delicate sensibilities might short-circuit? Why spread the poison?”

What follows is a fascinating chronicle of the tangled web of family history and world events that led James to sit in that Vienna office, facing those difficult questions. Soon after its opening in this sadly recognizable present-day world, the book jumps back sixteen years to James’s first visit to Europe, just as the Iron Curtain between East and West was parting. James’s father had committed suicide two weeks before, leaving him a strange and macabre bequest: a ragged World War II–era British military ID, a “heavy, cracked jar” found buried in a closet, and a letter that James couldn’t read, written in Ukrainian and addressed to his father’s mother, Vera, whom James had never met. James carries this meager stash first to England, where he meets Marian, an old friend of his father’s, and Selena, her beautiful and enigmatic adopted daughter. From there he travels to Vienna and to Vera, whose life after the war turns out to be not at all as James had grown up believing and whose illicit enterprise provides the title of the book.

Within these two wholly engrossing narratives, Melnyczuk weaves yet a third, that of James’s father, Andrew, who grew up in London as a ward of Marian’s family long before immigrating to the United States. Vera had sent Andrew, at the age of ten, alone to England to escape the mounting violence in Ukraine, and he arrived at the Liverpool docks on a cold and gray day “as lost as any boy you’ll find.” Through Marian’s account of Andrew’s formative years, we finally learn how he came to serve in the British military, the true contents of that mysterious jar, and the terrible choices behind both.

Melnyczuk—director of creative writing at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a member of the graduate Writing Seminars core faculty at Bennington College—is the author of two previous novels, both of which also take the experience of Ukrainian immigrants as their launching point and delve into the myriad ways our past informs our future. Of the major three stories that comprise this newest novel, the account of James’s later life in Vienna is the least deeply developed, amounting to just a few dozen pages that bookend the core chapters. But these crucial passages punch well above their apparent weight. Melnyczuk’s eye for detail immerses us in modern Vienna quickly and convincingly, with “trees itching to blossom” in early May and “blond whippets from Prague” flocking to the newly thriving city. And it is in this contemporary setting that James must face the culmination of his true inheritance, both physical and karmic. Who is to blame for the unspeakable suffering in Iraq? “We’ve already asked these questions once,” argues a doctor with the Red Crescent, referring James to the Nuremberg Trials. But did we answer them?

Although there are a few overt references to Buddhism scattered throughout the book—a flirtatious Indian woman describes her own “pendulous” earlobes as “one of the eighty-four signs of the Buddha,” and two other characters quote the Buddha’s First Noble Truth—the real influence of the dharma is, as Melnyczuk says of his Boston-area sangha in the acknowledgments, “invisible yet everywhere.” Melnyczuk’s nearly perfect prose and spirited dialogue provide a treasure trove of inspired wisdoms, almost endlessly quotable. James comes to realize, for example, that the only way he can understand his family’s convoluted history is “to insist on looking squarely at everything.” Or consider these lines, spoken by one of James’s traveling companions on a train in Eastern Europe during that fateful summer in 1989:

Most of us live in imaginary time. Fantasyland. In our heads: our dreams, hopes, neuroses. Not here. Here, things get real in a way we’re not used to. Pay attention, or you’ll get hurt. Here neuroses find bodies. We think the universe is closed, contained, self-sufficient. In fact, it’s wide open, and no matter how you try, you can’t keep this reality out.

Not every loose string is tied up satisfactorily in the end. A severed hand, for example, appears and then seems to be forgotten a little too quickly. And by the time the contents of that jar are revealed to be not quite what we were led to imagine, subsequent events have rendered this unexpected twist largely irrelevant. But perhaps this is exactly the point. Among the many revelations Melnyczuk has packed into his finely crafted novel lies the question of how much we can ever know about even our own personal history, let alone the history of others. As the present-day James declares early on, “All is layers: stacks on stacks, facts covering fictions resting on facts, sediments of a century hardly begun yet already sagging, waiting for the inevitable tectonic shifts to shake things up.” Where so many writers might try to boil these wonderful stories down to some easy essence, Melnyczuk’s masterful novel serves up all the layers.