Reviews Writing the War. Literature about the war in Donbas

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 2019:2, pp 89-90
Published on balticworlds.com on juni 19, 2019

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Writers from Ukraine have written extensively about the war in Donbas, and it is no coincidence that two popular novels about the current war are written in Ukrainian and in Russian by writers who were born in Donbas. Although they come from different cultural backgrounds, these writers present a very similar picture of the war, where the main characters are civilians lost in the debris and absurdity of the war.

Every war produces its own stories, and the current war in Donbas is no exception. Since 2014, hundreds of books have been published in Ukraine by writers, journalists, and all kind of experts as well as by soldiers where they tell us their own stories of the war in the eastern part of Ukraine. The two most famous novels about the war in Donbas were written by authors who were born in Donbas. These are Volodymyr Rafeenko’s novel The Length of the Day (2017) and Serhii Zhadan’s novel The Boarding School (2017).

These two authors had different statuses in society before the war started. Rafeenko lived in Donetsk, worked as an editor, published his books in Russian, and was awarded the Russian Prize (Russkaja premia), which is given to authors who write in Russian but who live outside Russia. In short, Rafeenko was very well integrated into the Russian literary scene. When the war started, Rafeenko left Donetsk for Kyiv. Zhadan was born in Starobils’k in Luhansk oblast. Since the 1990s he has been living in Kharkiv, where he has published poetry and prose in Ukrainian and has become a leading figure in the Ukrainian cultural scene. Indeed, Zhadan has the status of a rock star in Ukrainian literature (he sings in the rock band Dogs in Space, which makes him popular even among those who never read his prose). To a certain degree, we can say that Rafeenko and Zhadan represented different literary traditions before the war — the former belonged to the Russian literary sphere while the latter was the main voice in the formation of contemporary Ukrainian literature. Nevertheless, it was exactly their novels that became the main literary works presenting the current war. Despite the different cultural traditions these writers represent, it is remarkable how similar their approaches are to literary representations of this war.

Rafeenko’s The Length of the Day is a continuation of his earlier science fiction dystopia Descartes’ Demon, which centers on life in the mystical city of Z and ends with war coming to the city (this novel was awarded the Russian Prize). In a way, Rafeenko foresaw the war, or at least, as he explained in his interviews, he could feel that something bad was on its way. Rafeenko won several prestigious awards for The Length of the Day both in Ukraine and abroad. The famous Ukrainian writer Juri Andrukhovych praised The Length of the Day as the best Ukrainian novel in many years, and Zhadan said that this is the most important novel about the current war where reality is shown from the perspective of an inferno.

The Length of the Day takes place in the city of Z, which is occupied by a foreign power with whom many locals collaborate. The problem in the city of Z is that the only way of leaving the city is by dying. The city of Z is a mystical place that instead of being connected to Russia connected itself to the Soviet Union, which no longer exists. The narrative of the novel combines two dimensions — one is written in the form of the fantasy that describes the characters’ reality, and the other is written in the form of realism that describes the dreams of one of the main characters. In such a way, reality and fantasy trade places. As commented by Rafeenko, this is a novel in which the main part is a fairy tale for adults and the inserted novellas are concrete and tough injections of realism. Such a phantasmagorical style of writing reminds of the best traditions of Nikolay (in Ukrainian writing Mykola) Gogol’s writings. Rafeenko himself compares his writing to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s mystical realism. He claims that it was exactly this mystical realism that helped him to overcome the hardships of reality and to write about these hardships. Ukrainian literary critic Hanna Uliura noted that Rafeenko plays with the main myths of this war as presented by the Russian writers Vladyslav Surkov, Zakhar Prilepin, and Eduard Limonov. These myths represent the current war as a metaphysical contestation between past and present where archaic myths from the Second World War are reactivated. In this mythical contestation created by the above-mentioned Russian writers, Ukrainians play the role of fascists. Indeed, in his novel Rafeenko plays with this myth and shows how limited this myth is; it gives nothing for understanding reality and serves only for deception of the public. On the other hand, he also openly makes fun of the oversimplifications and excesses in the tendencies of present-day Ukrainian nationalism, which is best exemplified in the novel by the figure of the Hindu god Ganesha dressed up in a Ukrainian folklore costume who serves as a “Holy Grail” for those who want to leave the mystical city of Z. In the same way as the Ganesha figure in the Ukrainian folklore costume seems ridiculous and out of place, the folkloristic manifestations of nationalism by the current political establishment seem redundant and out of date.

In another prominent novel of the current war in Donbas, Serhii Zhadan’s The Boarding School, we also do not see a concrete place where the events happen. We see only an unnamed town under siege. Zhadan shows us three days from the life of the novel’s main protagonist, a young teacher of history, Pasha, who goes on a self-imposed mission to take his nephew from the boarding school that is located on the other side of the town. Pasha has a small injury from his childhood that keeps him safe from recruitment into the army. At the beginning of the novel, we see an indecisive person who tries to escape from reality and who avoids thinking of the dangers of the encroaching war. In Pasha’s understanding it is not his war, it is a matter of big politics and he is only a small human being who can influence nothing. Gradually, though, Pasha’s perception of the world and his own place in the world changes. He decides to go to the boarding school to take his nephew home. This trip to the boarding school transforms Pasha, and he begins to see that he is also involved in the world and that it is not possible to escape it. Throughout the novel Pasha repeats one phrase as a mantra, “nothing to worry about.” But in reality he cares a lot about his nephew and risks his own life to save him and bring him back home. This novel belongs to the genre of Bildungsroman in which we witness the growth of the main character. The Boarding School also reminds of beatnik novels. Like in Kerouac’s famous novel, all of the events in Zhadan’s novel take place on the road as the main character travels from one part of the city to another and back again. Zhadan commented that although this novel is fiction, it in fact shows the real world. Theoretically there could have been such a teacher and such a situation. As the background, he took a real event — the Debaltseve operation when the Ukrainian army was leaving the town in February 2015. The novel is written using the optics of the civilians. It shows the war from the perspective of civilians who have no strong political or ideological convictions. It is a novel about people’s choices and lack of choices, about responsibility and a lack of responsibility, and Zhadan vividly shows that war is silencing the voices of the civilians. By writing this novel, he tries to give a voice to those who are not heard or who are not seen. Because of high expectations of the public who were waiting for the “main novel about the war” written by Zhadan, some readers and critics were disappointed with The Boarding School. They criticized the writer for not stating clearly who is guilty in this war and for failing to call enemies by their names. But both Rafeenko and Zhadan make no clear distinctions between victims and perpetrators, the guilty and the innocent. Rafeenko shows the life of the civilians who live in the occupied territories, while Zhadan shows the life of the civilians in the city under the siege. The readers do not see any heroic deeds; they only see the absurdity of the war and the precariousness of the human condition when the war comes to one’s home.

Both of these novels were acknowledged by prestigious literary awards in Ukraine and abroad, and the translations of these novels into English and German are soon to be published.

While writing about the literary representations of the war in Donbas, I kept thinking about the cinematic representations of the region in the films that were shown in Stockholm in November 2018. Serhii Loznytsa’s film Donbas was shown within the program of the Stockholm International Film Festival, and Yaroslav Lodyhin’s Wild Fields — based on one of Zhadan’s novels Voroshylovhrad (the Soviet name for Luhansk) — was shown at the Fourth Nordic Ukrainian Film Festival. Loznytsa’s Donbas showed only one side of the war — the absurdity and hypocrisy of power fully corrupted by the ideology of the “Russian world”. Although many of the scenes were literally taken from documentary videos and then shown in the film through reenactments of these scenes by professional actors, the voices of the civilians and displaced people are totally absent in this film. Lodyhin’s Wild Fields shows life in Donbas before the war came to the region. Perhaps this portrayal of the peaceful life in the past (the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s) actually brings more understanding about the current situation in the region than Loznytsa’s film that focuses exclusively on the war’s atrocities. To get a more nuanced picture of the war, one needs to get more complex and multifaceted perspectives. By this, I do not mean a limited (and limiting) discourse disseminated by some uncritical voices about the need to represent all voices as if they all were equally legitimate players in the war (some of these players are criminals and they should be seen as such in contrast to the civil population).  I rather mean the need to avoid stigmatization of the citizens of the occupied territory as a collective figure of collaborators and instead to make an effort to understand the different constellations that lives take under the tremendously difficult conditions of war and occupation. As we can see in the literary examples, the representations of war can be as complex and multifaceted as life itself. Such portrayals do not divide the world into closed boxes, and they give the opportunity to look toward the future with hope . ≈

The Length of the Day (2017), Volodymyr Rafeenko, Dovhi Chasy, Lviv: Vydav-nytstvo Staroho Leva, 2017, 336 pages. The Boarding School (2017), Serhii Zhadan, Internat, Chernivtsi: Meredian Czernowitz, 2017, 272 pages.