11:11 Nov. 29, 2016
Serhiy Zhadan is amongst a handful of Ukrainian authors whose work has been widely translated. His recent "Voroshilovgrad" has become a novel of our present times
When I spoke with the Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan this past summer, at a café in the ninth district of Vienna, I found him much gentler than I had imagined him to be, writes Marci Shore in her story for The New Yorker titled "The bard of eastern Ukraine, where things are falling apart."
In person Zhadan was a self-reflective conversation partner and a careful listener. He is conscious of his role as the unofficial bard of eastern Ukraine—and still more conscious of the moral responsibility he bears for his words. There are not many people from his part of the world whose words reach beyond its borders.
Zhadan is among a handful of Ukrainian authors whose work has been widely translated. His most recent novel, "Voroshilovgrad," won the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature in Switzerland; he has drawn enthusiastic audiences in Austria, Germany, Poland, and Russia.
The main protagonist and narrator of "Voroshilovgrad", Herman, is from a small town near Voroshilovgrad—a city that, since the fall of the Soviet Union, is no longer called Voroshilovgrad but, rather, Luhansk (in Ukrainian) or Lugansk (in Russian). It's located in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
Zhadan himself did not stay there: like Herman, he moved to Kharkiv. But his parents and his brother and many of his friends stayed. He visits often, even now, when there is a war going on. Approximately ten thousand people have been killed since the war began, in the spring of 2014. More than one and a half million people have fled their homes and are now refugees. "Voroshilovgrad," though set in 2009, has become the novel of our present moment, an intimate sojourn in a long-neglected Soviet borderland that is now threatening to bring about the fall of Europe.
In the spring of 2014, "separatists" took over large parts of the mining region. It was difficult to say, at first, exactly who the separatists were. They formed a motley crew of territorial patriots, fascists, anti-fascists, local hoodlums, Russian volunteer soldiers, mercenaries, revolutionaries, Kremlin special forces, gangsters, and warlords who declared themselves to be fighting against a Nazi junta in Kyiv (which does not actually exist). Many separatists harbor an inchoate nostalgia for both the Soviet Union and the tsarist empire, and the distinction between Russian imperialists and local anarchists is vague at best.
Today the former Voroshilovgrad falls within the territory of the self-declared Lugansk People's Republic—an entity which, Zhadan wrote in May, 2014, "exists exclusively in the fantasies of the self-proclaimed ‘people's mayors' and ‘people's governors.'