WHAT IS TOLD by Askold Melynczuk. (Faber and Faber: $21.95; 216 pp.) Keep alive the old tales, says Zenon Zabobon. They are "truer than the stories in the papers." Not everyone agrees. When historian Zabobon is jailed once again for defending the Ukranian ethos, this time against the Germans, wife Natalka, a pragmatic peasant, attacks his library with a pair of scissors, snipping the pages "into a pile of dead worms." Books can't stop bullets, she says. Nor can bullets stop the Zabobons, not all of them. Descendants of nutty old King Toor, the clan flees Ukraine's latest predators, winding up, of all places, in New Jersey (someone has told them it's the Garden State). There they bicker, palaver, plot, resist Americanization and retell the tales of Toor, who talked with trees and routed the Tartars while the queen sheared the vegetable lamb she'd grown from seed. Wistful and idiosyncratic, "What Is Told" is a narrative of defiance, resignation, perseverance. Askold Melynczuk in his fine first novel taps into the Ukranian psyche with the fatalistic, almost existential humor only the frequently occupied can--and must--summon, especially in America, "where freedom was nearly as threatening as its opposite."

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