From Old World Syndrome to History: Understanding the Past in Askold Melnyczuk’s Ambassador of the Dead


  • Olha Poliukhovych
  • Heather Fielding



Ukrainian-American novel, Askold Melnyczuk, Ukraine, displacement, postmemory, identity, World War II


Askold Melnyczuk’s novel Ambassador of the Dead (2001) narrates the process through which a second-generation, assimilated American learns to comprehend the Ukrainian historical experience of his family and their generation. This article argues that the novel is centrally concerned with Nick’s learning process: as he begins to better understand his parents’ generation, he transforms his own identity. As a child, Nick is unable to see Ada — his friend’s mother, who is haunted by traumatic experiences — as anything other than an unchanging, incomprehensible enigma: “Old World Syndrome.” Eventually, Nick comes to follow the example of Anton, a displaced Ukrainian who narrates a story-within-the-novel that returns Ada’s experiences to their historical and cultural contexts, while using magical realism to place her Ukrainian experience on a historical scale. Through Anton’s example, Nick learns how to see both Ada and his parents as complex historical actors in world history. Understanding the past then enables him to see himself as Ukrainian and claim an identity that is both Ukrainian and American.


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