Tag Archives: post-Soviet Literature

Review: Voroshilovgrad by Serhiy Zhadan

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.

My Review:
VoroshilovgradThis 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  The place is an odd mixture of past and present: everyone is driving around in old, beat up cars, wearing outdated knock-off designer clothes and no ones cell phone works.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:
ZhadanSerhiy 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.

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Review: Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything by Daniela Krien

My Review:
SomedayMy tour of post-Soviet literature continues with a book that describes the last few months of life in the German Democrat Republic (G.D.R.).  The story is told from the point of view of Maria, a seventeen year old girl who is trying to find her way in the world while living through some very tough circumstances.  This book has three important aspects to explore, the first and foremost of which is a coming-of-age storyline.  Maria is on the cusp on adulthood and has never had much guidance or supervision in her life.  She has never known her father very well because he keeps leaving on trips to Russia throughout her childhood.  She finds out that this distant father is about to marry a Russian woman that is Maria’s own age.

Maria’s mother is not someone she can rely on because of her constant sadness and depression that is the result of her failed marriage. Maria doesn’t hesitate to leave her mother’s home when she is given the chance to live with her boyfriend Johannes and his family on their farm.  For the first time in her life Maria feels at home on the family farm; as she begins to help with the cooking and the daily chores on the farm her life suddenly has meaning and value and she is genuinely happy.

The next aspect of the book, which is arguably the most interesting,  is the intense love story.  But it is not a love story between Maria and her boyfriend Johannes.  There is a man named Henner, a loner with a reputation for excessing drinking who lives on the farm next door, that attracts Maria’s attention.  Henner is enigmatic and handsome and although he is twice her age, Maria is inexplicably drawn to him.  Their love affair is passionate and intense and Henner is even rough when he makes love to Maria.

But Henner also has a tender side and as they spend time together he slowly reveals his story and his personality to Maria.  Maria knows that what she feels for Henner is true love and she is living a double life.  Maria has a much deeper and more mature connection with Henner despite their differences in age.  She is torn apart trying to decide whether or not she should leave the comfort and safety of Johannes, his family and their farm in order to try to make a real life with Henner.  Living with Henner as his lover will surely shock the whole town and Maria will be shunned for it.

Finally, this story is about a very interesting time period in German history as the G.D.R. falls and the country is once again reunited.  The contrast between east and west in the novel is stark.  Johannes has an uncle who, as a young man twenty years earlier, managed to escape to the west and get an education and work as an engineer.  When the uncle comes to visit Maria feels frumpy and backwards compared to the uncle and his western-born and sophisticated wife.  Maria is excited but also nervous about the anticipation of being able to experience all of the exotic things that the west has to offer.

This book is an intense and quick read that I highly recommend.  This was actually the first book I read from Maclehose Press and I look forward exploring more of their catalog.

About the Author:
Daniela Krien was born in 1975 in what was then East Germany and lives in Leipzig, where she is an editor and scriptwriter for Amadelio Film. Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything is her first novel.

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Filed under German Literature, Historical Fiction

Review: Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev

The first book that I read from New Vessel Press was Guys Like Me and ever since then I have sought out their books again and again.  I received an advanced review copy of this title through Edelweiss.  This title was published in the original Russian in 2015 and this English version has been translated by Antonina W. Buois.

My Review:
Oblivion I have been captivated by the plethora of post-Soviet literature that has been published just in the last year alone.  The theme that is the most haunting to me is the one of waste: all of those wasted lives, all of that wasted time, and for what purpose?  I remember the attitude towards the Soviets in the 1980’s with the “us”, the free American democracy, versus “them”, the oppressive Soviet totalitarian regime, propaganda.  It seemed that the Soviet Union wanted everyone to believe that, not only was their system the best in the world, but their people were happy and thrived under that system.  But recent post-Soviet books, like Oblivion, have proven that this ideal that their leaders put forth could not be further from the truth.

When Oblivion opens, the narrator is middle-aged and living in Greece.  He is reminiscing about his childhood back in a dacha in the Soviet Union.  The one character from his childhood that looms over and dominates every memory he has is a man he calls Grandfather II.  He begins with an ominous sentence that states it was Grandfather II who decided his fate and the course of his entire life.  Grandfather II was an old, blind man who moved into the dacha and about whom no one asked any questions.

There are hints in the text that Grandfather II has a shady past that somehow involved the horrible gulag system.  He is adopted by his neighbors, especially the narrator’s family, as a sort of kindly and innocuous grandfather figure, and thus his nickname.  But the narrator has a very different view and opinion of this man which is chilling and frightening.  There is nothing that Grandfather II specifically does that is cruel to the boy or his family.  But Grandfather II has a presence and a demeanor that evokes feelings of fear and dread.

The narrator is further haunted by Grandfather II when, as a boy of about nine, he is attacked by a wild dog and Grandfather II comes to his rescue by crushing the dog’s spine.  The narrator is brought to the hospital on the brink of death because he has lost so much blood.  Grandfather II, despite being an old man, insists that he give his own blood to save the boy’s life.  Grandfather II’s heroic act saves the boy but in the end his own life is sacrificed because he was too old and weak to give up his blood.

The narrator is haunted for the rest of his like that he has this old man’s blood pulsing through his veins.  He decides that he must go on a quest to find out more about his mysterious man’s past and this leads him to a mining town near the Arctic Circle.  The mining town is a pathetic waste and shell of a town that was once home to a prison camp where its inhabitants worked in the mine.  When the narrator arrives in this northern town the prisoners are long gone, but the remains of the camp are still an eerie reminder of this wretched and miserable part of Soviet history.  The narrator confirms that Grandfather II was a founder of this mining town and in charge of the prison camps.  The most disturbing part of this this journey, however, is when the narrator realizes what a cruel and inhuman person Grandfather II really was.  The saddest part of the narrative, for me, was learning about Grandfather II’s seven year-old son was also subjected to this man’s insistence on dominating and controlling everyone and everything in his life.

Finally, I have to say a few words about the densely poetic language that the author uses for his tale.  It took me longer than it normally would to read a 300-page book because the sentences were so masterfully created that I oftentimes found myself reading entire sections more than once.  There is a dream sequence in the middle of the book during which the narrator has a series of three dreams just before he is about to embark on his journey to the north.  This section could almost stand on its own as a poetic and metaphorical reconstruction of the oppression and unjust treatment that so many suffered under this totalitarian regime.

Oblivion is a haunting, intense, descriptive literary Odyssey that you will not soon forgot.  The language that Lebedev employs and the detailed stories he tells ensures that the experiences of life under Soviet rule will indeed not fade into Oblivion.

About the Author:
S LebedevSergei Lebedev was born in Moscow in 1981 and worked for seven years on geological expeditions in northern Russia and Central Asia. Lebedev is a poet, essayist and journalist. Oblivion, his first novel, has been translated into many languages. Lebedev’s second novel, Year of the Comet, is coming out from New Vessel Press in 2017.

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Filed under Literature in Translation, Russian Literature