The unheard voices of war
A review of Інтернат (The Boarding School). By: Serhiy Zhadan. Publisher: Meridian, Chernivtsi, Ukraine.
Serhiy Zhadan is one of the most talented contemporary Ukrainian writers. His writings stand out not only because of the author’s literary talent but also because of his background. Namely, Zhadan is one of the few prominent Ukrainian authors who does not come from Galicia or Kyiv. His roots, in fact, are in Donbas, or – more precisely – a small town in the Luhansk oblast which is called Starobilsk. From there Zhadan moved to Kharkiv, another city in Ukraine’s east, where he lives today. Being outside Kyiv gives Zhadan a unique perspective which he well expressed in his literary portraits of Donbas, and which were the topic of his two large novels: Voroshilovgrad (2010) or Mesopotamia (2014). In these books, Zhadan focussed on the region which, until now, was not the number one priority among Ukrainian intellectuals. Conversely, they rather treated it with indulgence as an unknown and Russified periphery. Even more so, it was believed that Donbas had to be “converted” to be Ukrainian.
Polyphony of voices
Clearly, Zhadan’s books teach us more about Donbas than any political science or sociological analyses. The writer did not need to “convert” to Ukrainian, just a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union he graduated with a degree in Ukrainian language studies at the Kharkiv University. He did it at a time when studying the Ukrainian language in this part of the country was like learning Latin or ancient Greek. As exaggerated such a statement may sound, there certainly is some truth to it. Zhadan writes in Ukrainian, is socially engaged and during the Revolution of Dignity took an active part in the Kharkiv EuroMaidan, for which he paid a price. He was assaulted while standing on the barricade outside the administration building.
After the revolution he travelled to the war-torn Donbas, starting in autumn 2014. There the worlds were so intermingled with one another that it was very difficult to even grasp where the border was. He saw all the tragedies of the war and based on these experiences he came up with the idea for his latest novel – Інтернат (Internat, The Boarding School).
Zhadan admits that the Russian-Ukrainian war is often viewed through numbers: thousands of people killed and wounded, over one and a half million displaced and homeless. And yet he also wanted to give these numbers a human face, a name and an opportunity to speak. He found a language to describe the hell of war, sketching the picture from its worst possible moments – starting in 2015. This is a difficult art. Not only is the war still ongoing and the writer’s work resembles here that of the doctor doing an open-heart surgery, but also due to its smaller scale than the conflict in Syria, for example, it is slowly moving into oblivion. Both in Ukraine and outside.
Ukrainians are also now paying less attention to the war themselves and have apparently learnt to live in parallel to it. The western perception that Ukrainians speak with one voice while blaming Moscow for the war is flawed. When the Kyiv-based International Institute of Sociology asked people for their opinions in that regard, it turned out that only 52 per cent of respondents blame Russia and the separatists for the war, while 15 per cent pointed to Ukrainian authorities and the oligarchs. One third reportedly did not have an opinion. In the eastern parts of the country, those who accused Russia were naturally smaller in numbers – merely 29 per cent. In turn, 17 per cent pointed to Ukraine’s fault, while as many as 54 per cent had no opinion.
Zhadan knows all too well that in his hometown Kharkiv not everyone supports the narrative of the Maidan elite. He knows that the Ukrainian reality and the perception of the war is much more than simplistic divisions. Thus in the book he does not create additional cleavages, nor strengthens the existing ones. Instead, he shows the polyphony of voices and lets the real people talk. It’s important especially if we take into consideration that in last presidential election pro-Russian candidates received more than 15 per cent of votes in the first round on March 31st.
In Polish press Zhadan recently wrote: “Old women who spent their lives in mining towns, who have never really left the borders of their small locality and who have now, because of their unfortunate fate, found themselves at a historical watershed, stood up and were trying to talk the history down, they were trying to convince it to have mercy on them, not to kill them, not to destroy the remains of their world. … But to whom could they say that? To whom were their voices directed? I think that from the beginning they were directed internally and they were convincing themselves – this does not affect us, we have nothing to do with this, this is not our story, not our time … Somehow then, at the time of this first winter of the war, I realised about who I wanted to write. Namely, these are the women who stubbornly pretend that death with who they share a staircase, has nothing to do with them.”
In Zhadan’s bookthere are no heroes. The protagonists are ordinary people who are scared, trying to make ends meet and wanting to survive. They also often try not to notice the war, just like before they did not notice the state in which they lived. Indeed, the project of integrating the Ukrainian society was not completed before 2014. Many residents of Donbas also lived in parallel realities: Ukrainian, Russian or Soviet. They did not even manage to become accustomed to an independent Ukraine by the time public buildings changed flags. One of the few undeniably positive protagonists of the book is the school principal – Nina. She opposes the taking down of the Ukrainian flag from the building and scolds the phys. ed. teacher for not participating in elections and thus not knowing who represents him in the parliament.
Zhadan’s protagonists are people whose existence we could only guess – they include apolitical pensioners, passive teachers, and intimidated female employees of a tourist agency. While writing about them, Zhadan does not overuse such terms as “Ukraine”, “Russia” or “Putin”. This for sure is praiseworthy as otherwise we could get pushed onto a well-trodden path. Through his book, he rather asks such important question as: Wouldn’t the situation be similar in many countries that are considered developed? Don’t people – in their mass – at a time of war think about survival, not focusing on ideals and sovereignty? Hasn’t it always been this way? Wasn’t the narrative about the ancient wars which we know so well was primarily based on the generals’ diaries and showed too little sensitivity to the ordinary people? Probably yes, as indeed these ordinary people who are trapped by wars rarely have their own chroniclers.
Zhadan fills this gap. On a side note, the chroniclers are even more missing in combat zones where people have to live next to the permanent fighting. Such is the case today in Donbas where the frontline has long been stabilised. The chroniclers could also accompany people who return to their little homelands, but find that these are no longer the same places that they once knew. They no longer have the same trees, birds, neighbours, even relatives who – as it often turns out – chose to fight on the other side. The tragedy of this land is that it is inhabited by people who are homeless, even when they have a house.
The book talks about three days in the life of a Ukrainian language teacher named Pasha. He has to cross the frontline to bring his teenage nephew home. The land that Pasha travels through has no rules. It is the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max. Words are increasingly blurred in their meanings and it is hard to understand what people mean when they say “ours” or “theirs”. Here, a bullet can hit you from any side and it is difficult to tell one army from the other. Thus, Pasha, when meeting his former students in uniform, sees that they are fighting on both sides.
Zhadan keeps the reader engaged until the very last page and throughout the entire book we have a sense that something unexpected can happen at any moment. As a result the reading of the novel is, on the one hand, one of the most unique aesthetic experiences, but, on the other, it is also a psychological challenge, given the faithful presentation of the brutal reality.
Overall, Zhadan stays away from the world of big politics. Instead, his stories smell of sweat, urine and canned meat. Most importantly, despite his pro-Ukrainian views the writer does not treat Ukraine as a sacred cow – at one point he describes a drunken Ukrainian soldier playing with a grenade and thus putting the people around him at risk. Zhadan’s bravery in this regard is for sure worth our great esteem.
Translated by Iwona Reichardt
Zbigniew Rokita is a Polish journalist specialising in Eastern Europe. He is the author of a recent book titled Królowie strzelców. Piłka w cieniu imperium – a report on Eastern Europe of the last century shown through the prism of sport and politics.