I received a review copy of this title from Deep Vellum Publishing through Edelweiss. The original title was published in the original Ukranian in 2010 and this English version has been translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Wheeler.
This book can only be described as a literary Odyssey, a roaming adventure through the crumbling town of Voroshilovgrad and its surroundings in the post-Soviet period. The plot offers so much more than Herman’s bizarre story as he attempts to run his brother’s gas station; we are confronted by a poetic journey through the landscape of Ukraine and a up close look at the unique people who inhabit this part of what once was Soviet territory.
The landscape, described in painstakingly detailed and poetic prose, is an important and prominent character in the book. The gas station is old and falling apart and Kocha, an employee, lives in a trailer out back. The airport, which is no longer used, is fighting against nature which threatens to take its territory back. An old Soviet youth Pioneer camp is abandoned but its library which is full of books about Lenin is still intact. Even the hotel is described as a “partially sunken ship.” Everyone is trying to survive and somehow carve out an existence despite the decaying world around them.
The most important theme of the book is one of loyalty; the characters display a remarkable amount of loyalty to their decaying home and to each other. The city of Voroshilovgrad technically doesn’t even exist anymore as its reverted back to its old Ukranian name of Luhask. The place is an odd mixture of past and present: everyone is driving around in old, beat up cars, wearing outdated knock-off designer clothes and no ones cell phone works. When Herman arrives at his brother’s gas station, the two employees, Injured and Kocha, are mistrustful of Herman because they think that at any moment he will abandon them and go back to his white collar office job in the city of Kharkiv. Injured and Kocha are faithful employees of Herman’s brother Yura who has mysteriously left town. Herman calls his brother repeatedly but is unable to solve the mystery of his sudden departure from his life and his business.
Herman intends to stay in Voroshilovgrad for a day or two but the people and the experiences and his sense of responsibility keep him there indefinitely. Many of the adventures he has are ones that celebrate life and community. Injured, who once was the start striker on the local soccer team, recruits Herman to play a soccer game against their old rivals, the “gas guys” who live on the edge of town. The gas guys were transplanted from somewhere in the north and were hired by the government to source natural gas in the area. Herman’s old friends and the gas guys are a bunch of rough-and-tumble, worn out, tattooed men who act like children during this game. There is a hilarious argument over who won the game and when a fist fight breaks out between Herman’s own team members the gas guys timidly back down.
Herman is also treated to adventures that involve a wedding among a group of smugglers, a brief stay at a nomad Mongul camp, and a funeral for a local woman who has died. Each of these adventures have a humorous side because of the bizarre settings and interesting characters involved. The smugglers so appreciate Herman’s attendance at the wedding that they give him a pair of electric scissors, but are sorry to inform him that they don’t come with a warranty.
But each of Herman’s adventures also have a serious undertone as there is always a sense of danger looming about. Herman is also being threatened by a group of local Oligarchs who are trying to force him to sell his gas station. But once again loyalty works in Herman’s favor when his friends show up to help him out; despite any danger they might face, they would not think of having it any other way. Life in this city is not easy for Herman or for anyone else but a sense of belonging in this decrepit place is what keeps Herman in Voroshilovgrad permanently.
The word Odyssey keeps coming to mind as I think about this book. The various road trips and trips on foot that Herman takes, his encounters with villains and good people trying to help him make for a meandering and adventurous story full of strange characters. All the while Herman gravitates towards home which, in his heart, is where he knows he truly wants to be.
For an excerpt of this book and more information please visit the Deep Vellum website: http://deepvellum.org/product/voroshilovgrad/
About the Author:
Serhiy Zhadan is one of the key voices in contemporary Ukrainian literature: his poetry and novels have enjoyed popularity both at home and abroad. He has twice won BBC Ukraine’s Book of the Year (2006 and 2010) and has twice been nominated as Russian GQ’s “Man of the Year” in their writers category. Writing is just one of his many interests, which also include singing in a band, translating poetry and organizing literary festivals. Zhadan was born in Starobilsk, Luhansk Oblast, and graduated from Kharkiv University in 1996, then spent three years as a graduate student of philology. He taught Ukrainian and world literature from 2000 to 2004, and thereafter retired from teaching. Zhadan’s poetry, novels, and short stories have been translated into over a dozen languages. In 2013, he helped lead the Euromaidan demonstrations in Kharkiv, and in 2014, he was assaulted outside the administration building in Kharkiv, an incident that gained notoriety around the world, including a feature article in the New Yorker. He lives and works in Kharkiv.