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The Alphabet of Pain: How I learned to read again

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine has changed the lives of all the country’s inhabitants. For a writer, such an event may well inspire a renewed sense of purpose. While the realities of war bring new duties, they make the power of words all the more clear.

March 27, 2023 - Oleksandr Mykhed - Stories and ideas

Photo: Andrew Frol

 Literature does not save. After the full-scale invasion, it was difficult for me to focus on reading and to listen to the semitones of moralising in great literature. War crystallises our perceptions, and the fragility of the usual way of life and people themselves.

I am a writer, so reading and writing are (were) integral parts of my everyday life. However, it took me a few months to find a new meaning in reading and develop a new approach. If previous reading experiences did not protect my family or me, how can the knowledge gained through reading today protect us as a nation?

My journey back to reading was a conscious process of taking small, hesitant steps, one after the other. Looking back, the notion of intellectual rehabilitation as a means of overcoming trauma seems almost comical.

But can one find humour in struggles to heal and move forward?

This included relearning how to speak (for trauma cannot remain silent), mastering the “alphabet” of full-scale war, understanding the emotions of those close to me and new acquaintances, and finally, re-establishing reading as a daily habit that once symbolised normality and security, but which no longer exists.

At first, I tried to read world classics and looked for answers there. This decision was prompted by my experience with cinema, which I was also simultaneously trying to learn to watch again. So in the barracks, in between training and dressing, I watched Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator on my phone. And in the black-and-white flickering of Chaplin’s satire, I saw a timeless truth that will never get old. I was looking for something similar in literary classics. However, everything seemed too verbose to state the obvious.

Then I tried to read Russian classics. It seemed to me that it was time to read Andrei Platonov finally. His unique weaving of words and the chthonic Russian world should give at least some explanation for the abomination we faced. At the beginning of Chevengur, Platonov says that there was a crop failure every five years, and half of the Russian countryside’s population went to mines and cities, and the other to forests. But this time, the drought happened two years in a row: “The villagers locked up their houses, divided up into two groups, and set out on the main road. One group headed towards Kyiv, while the other made their way to Luhansk to earn money. However, some returned to the forest and overgrown slopes, where they resorted to eating raw grass, clay and bark, causing them to become wild. Most adults left the village, leaving behind either the children who had already passed away or those who were bedridden. The nursing infants were also left behind, as their mothers denied them milk, leading to their eventual demise.” I have had enough of classical Russian literature at this point.

As a displaced person who had lost their home, I found that reading the New Testament helped to structure my chaotic mind with its evangelical rhythm. Interestingly, the story also resonated with my attempts to adapt to the statutes of the Armed Forces of Ukraine; certain sections of the book left a lasting impression on me.

Despite trying to read various genres such as non-fiction, fiction and detective novels, nothing seemed to help. Adding to my frustration were the writers who gave interviews to the Russian media, making it challenging to appreciate several thick novels by Jonathan Franzen that would remain unread.

I found a way to rekindle my passion for reading through music. As I tried to make sense of the blaring sounds in my headphones, I realised that my simple playlist had taken me back to my teenage years, when musicians sang about loneliness and the impossibility of understanding the world.

This renewed interest in my old musical tastes prompted me to consider starting afresh by returning to the author who, at the age of twelve, had taken me by the hand and introduced me to a world of monsters that were less terrifying than real people. That author was none other than Stephen King.

I picked up his novel Duma Key, which I had previously left unread. It is a tale of a man who is half-paralysed after a car accident and has lost his arm. The protagonist discovers a mystical talent for painting, allowing him to capture what he could never see with his own eyes. Naturally, there are elements of horror woven into the plot, but what makes the story truly compelling is the main character’s trauma and suffering.

It took me around three months to read the novel, and the convoluted, verbatim Ukrainian translation made the journey even more challenging. Nevertheless, reading a book by my favorite author, which delved into themes of trauma and the struggle to rebuild one’s life, became a form of meditation for me.

However, even this memory can fade away for a displaced person who frequently moves from place to place.

Now, books that once belonged to my wife’s library in Hostomel or my parents’ book collection in Bucha are associated with triggering emotions that shatter my heart. Whenever I come across one of these books, whether in a bookstore, coffee shop or on a friend’s shelf, the words “We had one” get stuck in my throat, no matter where I am.

The fear felt by the Russian occupiers towards our books and culture reinforced my faith in the power of literature. The first step they took in the occupied territories was to rename settlements in the Russian manner, restore Soviet symbols and purge libraries. In their pursuit, they even deemed certain books as “harmful” and treated them as if they were as dangerous as those “subversive elements” composed of flesh and blood.

The sense of connection you feel with the generations of Ukrainian writers who have faced the same adversary and endured similar hell can also rekindle faith in the power of literature. They are the ones to whom my literature owes everything.

Literature does not wage war, but writers went to war to defend the country. At the same time, defenders who never wrote before try to articulate their experience in texts.

Literature is one of the tools to ensure that what we have lived through, our anger, the horror of the experience that modern Ukraine is going through, becomes a collective memory.

Literature makes it so that with the number of tragedies that continue to occur – in Bucha, Mariupol, Izyum, Dnipro, Brovary and elsewhere – our perception does not become cloudy with each exposed new torture chamber or mass burial site. Thanks to literature, our rage will not subside and will remain sharp.

I still have a hard time reading. But without the opportunity to write and record the horror of a full-scale invasion, I would not be here. Literature does not save – except it does.

This piece is part of the State of War anthology, which features 100 writers’ texts on their experiences during war. It is published by the Meridian Czernowitz publishing house, which aims to return Chernivtsi to the cultural map of Europe.

Translated by Kate Tsurkan and Yulia Lyubka.

Oleksandr Mykhed is a writer and art project curator based in Kyiv, Ukraine. He has authored eight books, with selected essays and excerpts translated into ten languages. Notably, he translated Marina Abramović’s memoir Walk Through Walls into Ukrainian in 2018, which was a finalist for the Lviv UNESCO City of Literature Prize. His latest nonfiction book, I Will Mix Your Blood With Coal (Nash Format, 2020), is a well-received exploration of Donbas and the Ukrainian East. It was published in German by Ibidem in 2022, with forthcoming editions in Polish and English. Oleksandr has participated in literary residencies in various countries, including Finland, Latvia, Iceland, the USA, and France. He is also a member of PEN Ukraine.

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