Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Crossing Over: Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad

There’s a certain category of books—including today’s subject, Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad—that are nigh on scary to write about. Voroshilovgrad, which I read in Russian, in Zaven Babloyan’s translation from the original Ukrainian, isn’t just a novel: it’s a wonderfully mind-occupying and mind-bending experience in the form of a first-person narrative from a man, German Korolev, who returns to his childhood places after his brother, proprietor of a service station, goes missing.

Voroshilovgrad crosses, with tremendous grace, back and forth between lyrical dreaminess and brutal nightmarishness, and Zhadan works in lots of absurdity… it’s absurdity of the sort that feels normal in books set in the Former Soviet Union, making everything in Voroshilovgrad feel paradoxically both real and bizarre. There are cornfields, grabby criminals, members of the Штунда/Stunda sect, a bus driver asleep at the wheel, a refugee camp inhabited by nomads wanting to head west, and the most bizarre soccer game I’ve ever read.

When I asked Zaven, who gave me a copy of Voroshilovgrad in September at the Translators Congress in Moscow, if there was anything he wanted to tell readers about the book, here’s what he wrote:
Тому, кто никогда не жил на Востоке Украины, многие сцены должны казаться совершенной фантасмагорией -- а они этнографически точны. Из локального, ностальгического и мистического Жадану, мне кажется, удалось сложить нечто, выражающее уникальные и универсальные чувства -- чувства, какими всегда пропитаны великие истории. 
In my not-so-graceful [but with dumb error corrected!] translation: 
Many scenes probably seem absolutely phantasmagorical to someone who’s never lived in Eastern Ukraine, but they’re ethnographically accurate. I think Zhadan managed, using the local, the nostalgic, and the mystical, to create something that expresses unique and universal feelings, the sorts of feelings that always permeate great stories/histories.
I see lots of direct connections between Zaven’s comments and the element of the book that stood out most for me: constant crossings of temporal, geographical, national, and state-of-mind boundaries. A favorite example of the latter: German’s sweet, outdoor morning nap is interrupted by an inexplicable warm draft of air, a sensation that he realizes, eyes still closed, emanates from a bus. Of course the bus is an Ikarus that’s arrived to take German and his teammates (and what teammates they are!) to play that bizarre soccer game against a bunch of gas industry workers. This isn’t the first time German rides on an Ikarus, a name that indicates flying, something that’s important here, both literally and metaphorically. Zhadan includes crop dusters, dreams of flight, and a line about childhood ambitions that’s on the cover of my book, “Все мы хотели стать пилотами. Большинство из нас стало лузерами.” (“We all wanted to become pilots. Most of us became losers.”)

There are lots of on-the-ground trips by train and car—and I don’t use the word “trips” lightly: the book feels like “trips” in many ways—in Voroshilovgrad, too, making the novel feel like an extended road trip that harkens back to The Wizard of Oz. There’s even a mention at a funeral of the Yellow Brick Road, plus there are scenes set in cornfields. We’re certainly not in Kansas but the reference to Oz (and/or its rough Russian equivalent) feels perfectly fitting, because of blurry borders between real and imagined.

Postcard-like photo of Kliment
Voroshilov monument in Luhansk:
it (kinda sorta) gets a mention in the novel.
In case you’re wondering, Zhadan doesn’t write much in Voroshilovgrad about Voroshilovgrad, though the city is another example of the local, nostalgic, and mystical aspects of Voroshilovgrad that Zaven mentioned. For one thing, Voroshilovgrad, named for Kliment Voroshilov, a local man with a checkered history, no longer exists because it’s been rerenamed Luhansk (which is spelled Lugansk in Ukrainian). Voroshilovgrad comes up when German and a woman, Olga, find shelter from the rain in the Lenin room of a children’s camp (now, there’s Soviet myth for you!) where Olga once worked. German mentions that his childhood German teacher used to hand out sets of postcards with scenes from cities, like Voroshilovgrad, that the children had to describe even if they’d never visited. German compares this sort of uninformed description with demands that he live by someone else’s rules, something he’s dealing with in situations related to his brother’s absence.

Later in the book, Olga finds a packet of Voroshilovgrad postcards, saying she bought lots of them years ago to send to a penpal in Germany. Now, she says, the entire episode feels like something from another life, another city, and another country, with completely other people. That’s a lot of crossing over. “Наверное, эти картинки и есть мое прошлое,” she says, meaning “Those pictures probably are my past.” Though Olga says she was supposed to forget this past, she can’t: it’s a part of her, perhaps even the best part.

A bit of background: Voroshilovgrad won BBC Ukraine’s Book of the Year award in 2010. Liza Novikova’s review of Voroshilovgrad for Izvestiia notes that Zaven’s translation is a retranslation (an improvement!), adding that usually only classics are honored with retranslations. Liza also calls Zhadan a cult post-Soviet writer and refers to Voroshilovgrad as a “манифест поколения” (“a generation’s manifesto”).

Also: Zhadan’s “The Owners,” translated by Anastasia Lakhtikova is in Best European Fiction of 2012; the book says the piece is an excerpt from Гімн демократичної молоді (Anthem of Democratic Youth). I enjoyed it, too.

Disclaimers: I know Zaven Babloyan, Liza Novikova, and Anastasia Lakhtikova in my real and virtual lives. Zaven gave me a copy of Voroshilovgrad. It was a great gift: I think his translation reads very nicely, successfully creating a voice able to convey, often at very short notice, the lyricism, humor, and absurdity I mentioned. It was a pleasure to read his work.

Up next: Another book set in Ukraine, Margarita Khemlin’s The Investigator, then something else TBD… I’ve brought back so many books from Moscow that I have an embarrassing number of choices! I think I’m leaning toward Valerii Popov’s To Dance to Death, which several friends have praised very highly.

Image Credit: Alex Chupryna, via Wikipedia


  1. I'm still trying to find time to finish V. in the original. It's a strange book, not the least because I'm originally from Donetsk and spent a lot of summers in the rough area where the book is set. I know how an Ikarus moves and smells. I've been in city parks where the last functioning attraction is the dive bar (and, possibly, the тир). So far, the novel occupies an uneasy place between "yeah, but so what" and a weird feeling of deja vu, interrupted with occasional misplaced lyricism. By way of comparison, I can read Makanin's Андерграунд for the novelty, but I can't quite identify why I'm reading this.

    1. Alex, thank you for your comment... I'd hoped to hear from you about your impressions of Voroshilovgrad. I can definitely understand having doubts about your reading: I have them all the time when I read, too but in this case, the book kept sucking me back in. I've never spent time in this part of Ukraine (I've been to Kiev a few times but that's it), but I still had similar feelings to yours, perhaps because the blend of reality and irreality felt similar to what I've experienced in Russia. The lyricism didn't bother me at all, in fact I thought it fit nicely, probably because I remember finding beauty and kindness in the midst of some very chaotic times. That contrast has really stayed with me... and is probably why the book felt like such a full-on experience for me.

    2. I agree that the book is very competent and compulsively readable. But every once in a while I run across something like the following and feel a little silly:
      "Bони ніби зрослись між собою, так і йдучи — з двома головами на плечах, з двома серцями у грудях і з двома смертями про запас."
      "Они какбы срослись между собой, так и идя — с друмя головами на плечах, с двумя сердцами в грудях, и с двумя смертями про запас." (Ch. 2, quick translation)

    3. Understood! (Sometimes I wish there were "agree" buttons or something similar on here...)

  2. Very good poetry .

    1. I've read only bits of his poetry but the novel (in the Russian translation, at any rate) is often very lyrical.

  3. - You lead an active social life , managing to publish new novels , writing poems . How do you do it ?
    - Time we all have a lot. Just not everyone has the desire to work. I write always and everywhere. Computer with me constantly . Because rather spend most of his life on the road , then compose often at airports or train stations.