By Serhiy Zhadan
Translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Wheeler
Deep Vellum Publishing — April 2016
ISBN: 9781941920305 — Paperback — 445 pp.
A review from the backlist. I’ve had a copy of Voroshilovgrad in my to-read pile for years now, and I’ve picked it up to start numerous times only to put it aside to get to an immediate priority in my reading triage. With the horrific escalation in conflict and Russian aggression that has gone on in Ukraine since then, I finally decided I needed to get to this, to help balance the despair I would get from reading the current news.
Zhadan’s voice, and this novel, was just what I needed to be reminded of the humanity behind the politics going on in this region, and of the hope that still remains possible even amid the destruction of place and life. Well-respected as a talented and vital voice in contemporary Ukrainian literature, Zhadan is equally (if not more?) known for his poetry as his prose. Poetry is not my bag, but the poetics of his fiction resonate strongly.
Voroshilovgrad takes its name from the Russian name for the current Ukrainian city of Luhansk, and it is the original home of the novel’s protagonist Herman. Herman now lives in another city, where he holds an ‘executive’ business position with responsibilities as ill-defined as his aspirations and engagement in life. But, he is content and happy, abiding with his friends.
Until Herman receives a call telling him that his brother Yura has mysteriously left the country, seemingly abandoning the gas station that he ran for good. Herman decides to return to his hometown to find out more; to temporarily help its remaining employees, Injured and Kocha, take care of the business. Herman arrives to find that Injured and Kocha, while dedicated, are like fish-out-of-water in running things, uncertain of how their boss managed the business, or how he had dealt with a gang of local business leaders who had been pressuring him to sell the station.
Intending to stay only a day – or a few – Herman finds his loyalty and pride pulling him into staying in Luhansk, taking over the responsibilities, and the stresses, that his brother Yura has apparently fled. In addition to his two new friends/coworkers and the politically-tied thugs, Herman meets some of the local women, illegal migrants, wistful travelers, Romani families (referred to as Gypsies in the text), and ghosts of the past. Though he stays in one relative place (Luhansk and its environs) for the majority of the novel, Herman’s story is one of a journey, often traversing the wasted landscape on foot, by bus, or by rail. The landscape is almost like a character, but also a means for his encounters with the varied human characters along a personal journey of his soul, in this vibe of magic realism that even directly references The Wizard of Oz.
The environments and physical objects of Voroshilovgrad are barren and bleak, worn-out and used, abused. Including the people. But only in the physical sense. Zhadan imbues the souls of his characters, and their mind, with refreshing joy, camaraderie, optimism. As beaten as they all are, as decrepit as their city and possessions seem to be, they are fiercely loyal and hopeful. This resounds in the text, and the characters even help the environment display a simplicity of uncomplicated beauty without things like the latest fashions or technology.
Zhadan’s prose is also as comical as it is serious. The humor in the character’s lives, and even their most mundane interactions shines through, almost absurdly against that dark, bleak backdrop of a setting. This appeared most obviously to me in a section that features a football match (and its aftermath) among Herman and his coworkers, and the ghosts of players Herman knew in his past. Literally haunting, yet also absurdly comical and jubilant amid their rough-and-tumble personalities. Dead, but full of life.
Other reviews of the novel I have come across mention one downside to the novel being the female characters, who are all written distinctly from the male point-of-view and are not given much depth beyond serving the needs of Herman (both physically and metaphorically in terms of the journey of his spirit and life). I would agree with this, but also feel this applies equally to all of the male characters. Herman is the heart of the novel and all others really exist more in relation to his growth than any of their own.
Voroshilovgrad is a monumental work of beauty and passionate feeling, rendered all the more bittersweet by the current realities facing Ukraine. I look forward to reading more of Zhadan’s fiction, and I hope that more authors will exist there in the future to continue writing so truthfully. In terms of the plot of the novel, the threats to Herman and his friends (while serious) ultimately give way to hope of a better future, and reduced threats. I pray the same goes for reality.