A Year in Reading: Il’ja Rákoš

In 1996, on my second day in Ukraine, a respected, local priest—Otets (Father) Ivan—invited me to his flat for lunch. Jet-lagged and overwhelmed, I went. I’d barely hung up my jacket when he thumbed open a bottle of Sovetskoye champagne with one hand and poured while snapping a chocolate bar into sections with the other. I was bewitched. He then dropped a chunk *bloop* into our shimmering flutes, handed me a glass and offered up this sotto voce nugget with a wink: “our girls love it this way.” Thus had begun my master-class in the finer points of Ukrainian corruption.

Which you may have heard of. The news reports don’t do it justice, of course. For Ukrainians rich or poor, it is as pervasive as it is maddening. Every sociocultural touchpoint bears its trace, from the obstetrics that open your eyes to the palliatives that close them corruption complicates the process. Register your kid in a school. Get a driver’s license. A dog license. A dentist’s license. Open a business. Close a business. Make a sale. Build a home. Pay your taxes. Finagle a liquified natural gas distribution contract or secure a plum date with the local priest for your wedding and it’s blat (pull), otkat (kickback), and khabarya (bribery) all the way down. It’s quid pro quo, who-ya-know, and pay-to-play.

But over these past five years Ukrainian corruption, both macro- and micro-, has met with some significant resistance. The unwashed are naming names. We have become a nation of whistleblowers. There are, finally, arrests.

Had we been listening, Big History would have long ago consoled us: Unless forestalled by terminal cultural collapse, the grubby venality, relentless emotional grind, fragile loyalties and ugly contempt for individual dignity that connote a pervasive culture of immiseration will not hold. Corruption—personal or systemic—is unsustainable indefinitely. Finding corruption, wherever it occurs, has never been the problem. In Ukraine, it took the blood of the young mixed with the memory of the old to confront it and to put a beginning to the end of the days of bullying dilettantism and petty, quotidian tyrannies. Lev, Igor, and Rudy simply showed up too late.

For my part, I was afforded a nice,
soft landing in the bog of Ukrainian corruption. I had tutelage from that jazz
impresario of scam—the abundant, amiable Otets Ivan. The embodiment of
the Russian proverb: if you’re going to steal, steal a million. If you’re
going to fuck, fuck the Tsaritsa.

A week before the end of my parish
service in Ukraine, Ivan called me up, excited; he wanted to show me the
galleys for a book he’d written. “Take a look”, he says. I turn a page,
another, begin to read. Slowly the fog lifts. I was reading my own sermon. Turn
a page. My essay. Turn a page. My lecture. Seven years of my work in print with
only one alteration: Ivan had listed himself as the author. He hadn’t even
bothered to change the anecdotes from my-cum-his youth growing up in the
1960s on the Pacific coast of Washington State. I hope it sold well; I was on
fire in my pastoral writing. Two things I know about Otets Ivan: He possessed
a genius-level capacity for corruption, and he was my first local friend. The
latter is relevant to my reading because I lack Ivan’s gift for acquisitiveness,
but I am not less corrupt. To address it I read.

That’s the long way around to saying
that I’ve come to a point in my life, in my reading, where I seek out books
that engage my need for redemption. In practical terms, a book—no matter how
relentlessly hyped—that betrays a lack of breadth, experience, or feel for
honest human encounter doesn’t interest me. I won’t be scammed. Fiction or
non-fiction, if I get a whiff of manifesto, a hint of ideology, performative
prose, cheap signaling, aversion to complexity or any of the other stultifying categories
of sociological pablum that make for viral tweets, then you’ve lost me as a
reader. I don’t need to be made any dumber than I am naturally. And I, like you,
definitely don’t need to be made more susceptible to the predations of the truly
sinister agents of corruption that are at work all around us.

In the end, I’m looking for love in the stories I read because I believe the Old Book is trustworthy in this: love shall cover a multitude of sins. Edify me, lift me up, restore me, help me atone, even provoke me, but talk to me as if I were the only person in the room. It’s what they called storgē in ancient Athens—longsuffering, dedicate, parental love. It’s uncommon among storytellers, a rare gift, and the surest antidote to corruption I know of. You’ll find it in each of the books below.

Underland by Robert Macfarlane

I am a tree-climber. I became enamored of Macfarlane a dozen years back when he opened The Wild Places with a description of his need to climb “a tall grey-barked beech” in a wood outside London. In Underland, he descends to locales that my claustrophobia prevents me from following him except on paper. He takes us below the surface of the planet to the concealed geographies, sacred and ancient, that undergird our existence and link us to the depths of time. My book of the year, perhaps of next year, too.

Rock, Paper, Scissors by Maxim Osipov, translated by Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming, and Anne Marie Jackson

The great appeal of the best Russian writers is their sneaky way of slipping hard-won philosophy into the story and doing it without being preachy. Perhaps that’s because it’s marked by an acceptance for our mutual predicament (essential to storgē), suffused with irony but bereft of contempt. Osipov’s short stories are brimming with it. Here’s a snippet: “He knew that all the cars passing by contained people who valued their lives no less than he valued his—their lives and the safety of their vehicles; and so they tended to be cautious, give warning, and not to despise themselves for their willingness to yield.” Think about that.

The Girl from the Metropol Hotel by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, translated by Anna Summers

As preposterously original as her fiction is, this is Petrushevskaya at her spare, brutal best. This refreshingly brief memoir adds, at the very least, sobering perspective to current debates about “Cancel Culture”. At its most exhilarating it provides some toothy, deeply grounded counterpoint to the claim that there are no more heroes.

What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson

I swear, Marilynne Robinson steals all my ideas and then writes the hell out of them with intellectual rigor that’s as rare as it is outmoded in an increasingly vitiated culture. She is the anti-Tweet, the anti-meme, the anti-eyeroll GIF. Lectures, essays and, yep, sermons. Read her, get smarter, and feel your heart swell.

Self-Portrait in Black and White by Thomas Chatterton Williams

An articulate, compassionate, and necessarily particular argument/memoir on the “fluidity of racial borders” and the idea that it is not the perception of race that gives rise to racism, but racism that gives rise to concepts of race. Williams delves into the abyss of corrupted human nature and emerges hopeful writing, for example: “…the situation is not zero-sum: We can simultaneously resist bigotry and imagine a society that has outgrown the identities it preys on. In fact, we have to.” Smart x3.

Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet

Proviso: You will need to read the first three books in Krasznahorkai’s tetralogy—Satantango, Melancholy of Resistance, War & War—if you want to get this. What am I talking about? There’s nothing to get. Unless, that is, you’re interested in grasping the uncommon appeal of fake news, collective crisis of conscience, and cultural entropy. And all wrapped in Krasznahorkai’s prose both staggering and nonpareil, and dipped in wincingly dark humor sauce. Very funny. Very true. Very us.

My Chernobyl

☢ ☢ ☢ a tv show

In an early scene of the recent HBO mini-series Chernobyl the local Pripyat town council is called to a meeting. By this point in Soviet history, these meetings of official Communist Party functionaries—like those portrayed in the scene—served no purpose beyond employing whatever means necessary to save the Party embarrassment from another ideological failure. The set-up is borderline comic, appropriately so, with a tableful of actors portraying crusty, back-slapping Soviet nomenklatura—honest to goodness bad guys—all too ready to swallow the demonic proposal offered by the crustiest Party hack in the room: Shut down the town. Nobody in or out. Cut the phone lines. We can’t allow a general panic. Particularly, the old man insists, since there’s nothing to panic about.

I wondered, though, whether Ukrainians and Belarussians watching Chernobyl wouldn’t guffaw their borscht out their noses at another “Hollywood” attempt to dramatize their aching history. More cultural hash, devoid of nuance, stuffed with comic book Soviet citizens. Had HBO screwed up, casting Anglophone actors who wouldn’t know a Ukrainian from a Taresian from the Delta Quadrant? The actors around that table were not the unflappable, taciturn eastern Slavs I’ve spent half my life among. Not even close.

I was pretty sure of myself: In giving life to Chernobyl, HBO, in a gloriously unintentional blast of irony, had birthed a mutant. A flop. It would sink like a pebble in a pond. Too windy. Far too nuanced for the 280-character generation. And anyway, ancient history. 1986? Pre-internet. People wouldn’t care. For proof, look to the five million Kyivites living within 80 miles of the Chernobyl dead zone, our city hyped by an endless string of millennial puff-pieces about “Kyiv: The New Berlin!”—how bad can the damage be, really? If nothing else, the series would fail because as an internet troll once scolded me: Ukraine is irrelevant. By writing about it I was just promoting American hegemony—a CIA acolyte, a baby boomer stooge pining for the Cold War and looking to disparage Marx.

An assertion that was, of course, as ignorant as it was beside the point. I love Marx. But the exchange did provide a delightfully ironic rendering of what happens when an ideologue bastardizes an otherwise worthy piece of technology—be it the internet or a nuclear reactor—to serve parochial interests.

Back on point: Admittedly, the Chernobyl series faced challenges. People would rather forget. Nuclear physics is hard, and conversely, easy to ignore. Ukraine’s new president, a comedian by trade (there is no joke in this sentence), is currently prodding the Ministry of Culture to turn the Exclusion Zone into a “Tourism Magnet,” and I wish I were kidding about the formulation he chose. Ukrainians who earn their bread and board in the cultural sector have largely adopted an exasperated pose toward the subject of Chernobyl—it’s boring. Insignificant. Ukraine has so much more to offer. A sentiment that oddly recalls Cousin Eddy in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation describing “the Yak Woman” at a local carnival: “She’s got these great big horns growing right out above her ears. Ugly as sin but a sweet gal, and a helluva good cook.” Chernobyl casts Ukraine as Europe’s Yak Woman. And if radioisotopes have anything to say—and they do—it will continue to serve in that role for the next 10 millennia, give or take.

☢ ☢ ☢ the history

Here’s the gist: In the early morning of April 26, 1986, Reactor #4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine exploded—the worst nuclear disaster in European history. It came about because a young Ukrainian engineer, Sasha Akimov, did exactly what his boss told him to do and punched the malfunctioning reactor’s big red OFF button.

There’s more to the story—and the HBO series tells it well, with clarity that few physics professors could match—but that punched button would force the permanent evacuation of 350,000 people, kill tens of thousands more, embitter tens of millions, contaminate the greater part of Europe with random showers of radioactive fallout, poison sheep in Britain and Sami tribes in Norway, take a solid $225 billion bite out of an already flailing Soviet economy, and provide a fatal kick to the groin for the USSR.

In the 33 years since, the accident has also resulted in a shitstorm of mendacity, double dealing, and unprecedented opportunity for fiscal corruption in a state celebrated the world over for its genius-level capacity for graft fueled by disinformation. It has produced enough scientific and sociological studies to level a forest, grist for Ukraine’s competing hard-right political factions, and helped fashion at least two nation-states that suffer from chronic, somatically mutated socio-political cynicism.

☢ ☢ ☢ at home in Kyiv

By accident of history I am better positioned to spot the little flaws in the Chernobyl production—the rare anachronism, the even rarer info-dump passing itself off as dialogue and the very-non-Slavic staginess in some of the acting. An example of the latter: In one scene the male lead—in what is an otherwise knee-buckling performance by British actor Jared Harris—stands alone at a bar, knocking back jigger after jigger of vodka with nary a zakuska (munchies, hors d’oeuvre) in sight. Clueless that a true Soviet man, uncharacteristically deprived of zakusky, would take a deep snort of his own sweaty wrist after each gulp.

Yet, I kept watching long enough to confirm a thing or two, namely: goddamn HBO. They don’t make flops. My initial skepticism was wrongheaded. Chernobyl, the mini-series, is good. In places, great. A series to rewatch, if not by me. All it took was a single long crane shot filmed on a street I know well.

The scene in question shook me—wrong word—sent me into a sobbing fit that scared the hell out of my sons, three and five. It was filmed not three blocks from our flat. The Soviet penchant for cookie cutter architecture surely helped in the scouting for locations that resemble those in the ghost town of Pripyat and 1980s Kyiv. My neighborhood had provided one.

Military-drab personnel trucks with the word LIUDY (“people inside”) spray-painted in capital letters on the tailgate pull onto Kyiv’s Kostiantynivska Street. Soldiers fan out along the street to begin the work of conscripting some of the 700,000 volunteers it would take to restore the devastated area to something resembling order. Kostiantynivska is bisected by tram tracks and lined on either side by modernist apartment blocks. When it came on screen, I knew the place immediately—my sons’ kindergarten is in the left of the shot. And there, on the right side, hangs the mistake: a single plastic-aluminum balcony extension for a top-floor flat. If Google street view is dated correctly, that balcony went up during the past four years. It certainly wasn’t there in 1986.

An ugly anachronism, but one that reminds me that in life, as in art, the past, present, and future will meld any damn way they please and there’s nothing we can do about it. Nothing. Particularly when Chernobyl-related relevancies—strontium-90, caesium-137, and plutonium-239 and its 24,000-year half-life—come into play. The spectrum of radioisotopes produced by the 60-ish metric tons of uranium that spewed from the Chernobyl reactor core and were carried by prevailing winds that dropped nuclear fallout across the breadth of Europe before it could be controlled, well, those chunks of burning stardust have a different concept of time.

Yet, Kyiv is home. Safe as Chernobyl milk. My family stays in part because we lack viable options. Also, partly because, despite attempts by cynicism, that relentless bitch, to seduce me, I will show that I am tougher than her. Or at least tougher than I was before I started allowing her room in my heart.

Chernobyl made me mad—not at all what I expected when I sat down to watch in preparation for this essay. Full disclosure: Chernobyl—the accident, not the HBO series—and I have some shared history.

☢ ☢ ☢ an ancient history

I used to be a pastor, a priest, a performer of ancient Christian ritual. As such, I, like most clergy, kept a book called a Pastoral Agenda—a ledger of official sacerdotal function. You get baptized, married, anointed, or buried on my watch and the relevant names, dates, Scriptural text, and attending circumstances go in the book. An earthly spreadsheet with heavenly data.

One crisp autumn day in 2001, I entered a name and the attending circumstances in my leather-bound, gold-leaf embossed Agenda that ended up being the last entry I would ever make as a clergyman. Before I left the Church, taking off the cloth for good, more weddings, funerals, etc. would follow, though they’re mostly a blur. They’re definitely not in my Agenda. I have no conscious memory of it happening, but it’s clear that I stopped writing things down that day.

About two-and-a-half years after that final entry, I would finish my parish work in Ukraine and return to the United States. Six months later I would be released from a psychiatric hospital, now tagged as suicidal, with PTSD, and on full disability: an unholy trinity that puts a hellacious crimp in your job prospects in God’s green America. I did what any sane person would do: I went back to the country that had unmade me. The place that had confronted and continues to confront my demons with its own.

That last entry in the book records the day I spent with a mourning family in a small village in far western Ukraine—day three of a traditional Orthodox Christian funeral. I led the procession from the home to the church. Sang the liturgy. Led the procession from the church to the cemetery. Officiated at the internment. We had a bit of a scare at the church doors where pallbearers traditionally kneel three times, lowering the coffin to the ground before crossing the threshold. That day the pallbearer—only one was needed—nearly stumbled. In the end he managed not to fall, and the Igloo cooler-sized coffin he was carrying was delivered safely to the sanctuary.

The funeral was for a two-year-old boy dead of acute juvenile myeloid leukemia. The 39th funeral I had conducted in Ukraine for a cancer victim under the age of six.

The drive back from that Carpathian village was gorgeous, but I was in a rush because I’d been invited to a talk with a member of UNSCEAR—the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation—meeting with local pediatricians. I disliked her on sight. When she opened her mouth it only sealed the deal. She spoke with the dismissive assurance typical to the breed, telling the room: There is no credible evidence of widespread malign effect on public health from radiation released during the Chernobyl catastrophe. I worked with pediatricians who had, five years running, determined that 100 percent of the children they treated tested positive for hypothyroidism—thousands of children annually. Ukrainian children born a generation after Chernobyl. Their mothers had been girls when it blew up. Their results, these doctors were told, were anecdotal. It was intimated that their research would not be considered for UNSCEAR reporting “as is.”

The dreams can be rough. Dead-eyed parents standing by a grave as the shoebox that holds the desiccated corpse of their little one is lowered into the black soil. The child whose family was so poor that the only coffin they could afford was made of particle board covered in felt. The dead boy’s godfather served as pallbearer. It was raining hard as we walked from the church to the grave and the box began to split apart in his hands. He gripped it tighter before eventually dropping to his knees and weeping in a way that has me praying for senility. Perhaps one day I will unhear him. Or unsee the vision cauterized into my brain of a little girl, pinched and skeletal in her coffin, and the crisscrossing indentations made by the mortician’s stitches holding her tiny mouth shut.

☢ ☢ ☢ the half-life we’re living

In these latter days, Chernobyl adds little to my existence beyond the 1.5-percent pension tax I pay every quarter—certainly an upgrade from toddler funerals and the attendant demons that HBO refused to keep locked in their cage. And there are demons. There are more lurking in this story than the series could ever begin to tell: the State-enforced abortions and the pregnant women crossing borders to avoid them, the ungodly spike in juvenile cancers, the crushing infertility rates, the 31 years it took to finally put a stable cover over the reactor, and, God help us, even profiteering bankers, those nuggets of human toxin that surpass all understanding.

Perhaps the defining phenomenon I draw from Chernobyl is the understanding that there is no limit to the evil we will do to one another. Though perhaps I stand as proof that there is a limit to how much evil the average person can stand. Something the HBO series captured well by centering its story around Valery Legasov, the actual Soviet physicist and inorganic chemist who drove the creation of a team of 700,00—700,000!—first responders by sheer force of will. (You have to admire Soviet maximalism.) The same ragged crew of the unwashed whose daily micro-acts of defiance understood tyranny as a way of life and not just vocabulary for a hyperbolic political tweet. Legasov, though he possessed all knowledge of nuclear fission, and though he spoke the truth to Soviet power in the tongues of angels, could not find sufficient love in his heart and hanged himself in his flat.

Here, close to the core, we have it better than most. Chernobyl hunkers nearby, a daily reminder of the lessons we ignore to our peril. That governments lie. That their noble-sounding intentions will involve, without fail, practical human cost. There is no truth, no nobility, no heart in them. The lie is their native language and murder their craft. Embitterment their true policy. They call some men free while enslaving others. And they take this turn—some sooner, some later—because they are made up of us. We swallow the lie as we feed it. John Le Carré put it well: “Communism. Capitalism. It’s the innocents who get slaughtered.”

Don’t misunderstand, the broader lessons of Chernobyl—if that’s not too quaint—are as unimpeachable as they are immutable: Rogue technology is off its leash; we shit where we eat and the earth groans, indicating it’s had its fill; our institutions, our best ideas, are obsolete the day they are minted. And yet I can’t help but think that these concerns, though disturbing, are altogether predictable phenomena on the spectrum of evil produced by a benthic species with a penchant for deep hostility and murder in its genes.

Svetlana Alexievich, 2015 Nobel Laureate for Literature, told me a couple of years back during an interview for The Millions: “I cannot cover a war anymore. Cannot add to that storehouse of bad dreams. Instead I’m trying to talk to them…about love. But this is hard for us…every story about love inevitably turns into a story of pain. Ours is not a happy culture.” And despite the prevailing timbre of this story, I am not sure I completely agree with her. Chernobyl has given Ukrainians an advantage: the ability to recognize what James Joyce called “the radiance in all things.” They have seen the world as it is. The lie in all its bold potential. They have seen a generation of their children reduced to so much insignificant and unidentifiable particulate, seen those children dismissed as statistically insignificant, and yet they have endured. Who needs happiness when you have hope? Finally, when nothing is as it seems what else is there but hope?

☢ ☢ ☢

I’m sitting on a bench outside my church. Too crowded in there. Too many random nuclei bumping and jostling. Too much heat being generated. This little congregation has an unexpectedly outstanding choir and this Sunday they are singing the Rachmaninoff liturgy—a rare treat. A tram rattles down the block, the same model of tram that’s been traveling along this road for at least the last 33 years. A young woman exits the sanctuary. She is big pregnant and her belly makes it difficult for her to bow and cross herself three times before the church doors. Out and down through the narrow windows float the words of St. John Chrysostom from deep antiquity—let us now lay aside all earthly care—to my ear the spiritual cantus firmus that fueled Rachmaninoff as he labored to compose this otherworldly music precisely as the Russian Empire was beginning its meltdown. The pretty woman smiles at me as she passes.

Image Credit: Oleksandr Khomenko.

A Year in Reading: Il’ja Rakos

These things come in threes and today they came nearly all at once. The first, when the President of Ukraine–famous for his chocolate–announced that he was putting the half of the country that borders Russia under martial law. The second with the two emails from the U.S. Embassy: the first advising me to be aware of “heightened police presence” and the second which informed me that my sons, 3 and 5, had been issued American passports. And finally there came Michael Cohen and the glimmer of hope that we might not be hearing the phrase “constitutional crisis” every damn evening on the news much longer.

I don’t know and am loath to predict how these events fit together–the war, the passports, the Cohen revelation–I just know they do. You can laugh, but that’s the way things work here: in threes. You greet an honored guest with three kisses. You receive a long absent friend into your home by offering them 1) bread, 2) salt, and 3) a lengthy formal blessing. When you go on a trip you sit on your suitcase before you leave and cross yourself three times. If you’ve ever endured a full Eastern Christian Orthodox liturgy you wouldn’t be wrong to walk away after the benediction convinced that orthodox ritual has a certain OCD quality to it. Why pray it once when you can do it three times?

With the species developing a real knack for atrocity, I turn to books not so much in search of escape but for reassurance. An irrational, and fully conscious, bid to force the world into a semblance of order, a place where things come in threes. Faith, hope, and love. Wisdom, integrity, and goodwill. Kessel to Malkin to Crosby. This phenomenon almost certainly affected my reading choices more than usual this year and I selected (or had selected for me) writers I could count on to honor that ancient Trinitarian codex: intelligence, clarity, and truth. These three, couched in beauty, can change the world. I am required to believe it.

There is more to say here but I’ll let it stew for a bit, hopeful that I will yet have opportunities to express my ideas this year here and elsewhere. And I will take my cue from the authors I name below, and not blanche in the face of the presumption, invective, ill will, bald-faced mendacity, self-righteousness, lazy orthodoxy, or myopically stubborn resistance to engage that I encounter this year. I’ll write about it. I’ll take it on, that–in defiance of Keats–the ceremony of innocence not be drowned. I have no choice really. It’s snowing hard–the first real thump of winter in what is tuning up to be a very long one, morally, politically, and meteorologically, and my two little Americans are tucked up warm and safe, the five-year-old with his arm wrapped protectively around his brother. These allow me no room for cynicism.

But you came for the books. Each title I recommend here, it turns out, contains its own trinity of sorts: an absence of juvenile staginess; something of wisdom; something of love. These helped keep my hands steady as the troops amassed at the border and my brain struggled to distinguish between threats to civilization whether credible or concocted.

A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré
I’m hopeful that the day will come that le Carré ceases to be referred to as an “author of spy novels.” It’s going on six decades that he’s been offering us an unflinching critique of our systems and ourselves, and yeah, his protagonists are often spies. But, oh, what spies. In this revisiting of the misdeeds of characters he first introduced us to in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, le Carré takes a coldblooded look at how the past refuses to stay buried. This is a masterful writer, with a keen eye for humanity at its most frail and most sinister. One proviso: to get the full enjoyment and understanding of Legacy, prepare by reading the other two novels I’ve mentioned here. Your local bookseller, not to mention your conscience, will thank you.

Kieron Smith, Boy by James Kelman
If you have not yet discovered James Kelman, here are 400-ish worthy pages to allow you to take on one of Scotland’s hidden treasures. Kelman’s ability to inhabit a child’s head provides us with a remarkable opportunity to again confront the world for the first time. He writes with grit and physicality of a rare sort and his depiction of Kieron “Smiddy” Smith, ages five through 13 and growing up poor in Glasgow, is an achievement nothing short of astonishing. Kelman’s art will shatter your preconceptions of what a child narrator sounds like. Just don’t look for neat plotlines or tidy, moral-laden endings–this is the anti-Harry Potter. This is your kids.

All That Is Left Is All That Matters by Mark Slouka
The author of the criminally underrated Brewster is back with a short-story set that puts his considerable gifts to the test. There’s a muscularity to Slouka’s writing that I don’t encounter often enough in contemporary fiction and it strikes me that this is a writer who’s been around. He’s a grown-up and the worldview of his characters, regardless of background, reflects that. He whittles our contemporary predicament down to its core and his characters, without pretense, are largely untouched by first-world problems or facile first-world solutions.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk
If a strictly linear narrative structure is obligatory to your definition of what makes for a “good book,” I’d encourage you to set that requirement aside for a bit and consider this 2018 Booker Prize winner. At 116 stories filling 400 pages, structurally it will seem chaotic at first. Stick with it, though, and themes and patterns will begin to emerge of lives and loves and a rocket ship ride through the swirl of stars that is us. An added bonus: Jennifer Croft’s translation (from Polish) is a joy to read and a template for a translation master class.

Florida by Lauren Groff 
This is a problematic writer for me for a couple of reasons: first, Florida is the second of about half-a-dozen books published by Riverhead Books that I could have put on my list this year, and having to choose was not pleasant; and second, I struggle to decide whether Groff has written a set of fictional short stories or just spent years and years observing the (apparent) mess that is Florida and rendered some exceptional creative non-fiction describing life in those parts. This is high art–the conjunction of a keen intelligence, a febrile imagination, and unrelenting skill that gets you thinking so hard about your own circumstances it stings. And these sentences. I shake my head in disbelief, wondering if it’s easy for her to be this good. These stories will spawn a brood of “I don’t like any of these characters” critiques, no doubt. Usually a pretty good sign that a writer has knocked it out of the park. Outstanding.

Come West and See by Maxim Loskutoff
How many stories have you read this year about an isolated fur trapper who falls in lust with a grizzly? None? Then what have you been reading? I’m a son of the American northwest and have always found grizz to be wet-my-pants terrifying, but Maxim Loskutoff has got me wondering if they might be an acceptable alternative to the company of some people. Come West and See, his short story debut, is filled with the careworn who spend their lives in the rugged territories in America’s northwest corner and–here’s the true part–they’ve got some unique ideas about their role inside these United States. Towering boreal forests and isolated settlements and a people and locale largely ignored fill these pages, and if you’re wondering how life in America could possibly engender the current level of disaffection that we’re seeing in society, well, here’s a dozen tales of how that works. Loskutoff’s writing puts flesh on the free-floating anxieties of those relegated to spend their days alone with their pain, and plugs them into a territory as pristine as it is insuperable. A territory that features the kind of overwhelming immensity of the natural world that would be impossible in an urban setting. Certainly the most “political” book on my list and therein lies the irony: these stories are about what happens when humanity becomes so degraded that all it has left to hold onto, all it has by which to define itself, is its politics.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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A Year in Reading: Il’ja Rákoš

One winter I came down with pneumonia twice in five months. The doctors, with my semi-conscious consent, were ready to try anything. One thing they did try was a technique “to warm up the lungs.” It involved a canvas corset that looked like it had been developed in a Victorian brothel and weaponized in a Soviet psychiatric hospital, ca. 1938. The nurses filled the thing with hot paraffin, strapped it on my naked torso, covered me up with furs and, pulling on their coats, left the room with promises to be back in 20-ish minutes.

Turns out there’s not much you can do for second-degree paraffin burns beyond trying to cool them down, keep them clean, and try not to pop the blisters. It’s astonishing how much pain you can stand when its infliction is gradual. It’s also astonishing to see how easy it is to forgive when beauty enters the equation. My nurses forgot me in that isolated exam room. They’d been outside, reveling in the season’s first snowfall. I imagine those two young women shivering in their great coats, arms linked, looking up at the sky and smiling. S pervym snegom! The dank caecum of the city where the hospital sat squat, prison-like, was getting its annual winter makeover. Given enough snow, even Soviet brutalist architecture assumes a certain charm.

Which is to say that winter is a sacred event in this part of the world. And given that it’s winter about half the year, that’s not nothing. It doesn’t mean, however, that eastern Slavs are incapable of viewing winter’s drawbacks pragmatically. Already treacherous sidewalks don’t become less so with the addition of ice. Municipal negligence of road maintenance, nightmarish driver noncompliance with traffic law, balky central heating—all exacerbated by the interminability of the season—are hardly exclusive properties of the West. The distinction in our perspectives of winter lies, it seems to me, in our arts: for Americans, November/December feels like a Robert Frost poem, for Slavs, a Tolstoyan reckoning or an Andrei Tarkovsky dreamscape, though that’s likely where the difference ends. This, too, is just a guess, but I figure that to all or most of us, East or West, by March, its romance wearing thin, winter feels as cold, dark, and endless as a Donna Tartt novel.

Yet, here in Slavic wonderland, despite the difficulties winter presents, when it hits we still rush to greet each other—s pervym snegom! with the first snow!—and are transformed en masse into 9-year-olds by the touch of the big, early flakes. Winter is romance, a chance at renewal, a purifier. We have trouble envisioning how the word “snowflake” could ever be used as a pejorative. Winter stopped Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, and whoever might try next. Winter is when the Leshy—the forest demons—go to sleep and finally leave us be: Anton Chekhov, Alexander Pushkin and 12 centuries of folklore don’t lie.

All of which came flooding back when I opened this—one of a half-dozen or so indispensable books I read this year—Alex Cigale’s lithe translation of Russian Absurd: Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms. Kharms was a Soviet writer who was not prolific, was a committed misanthrope, a friend of Kazimir Malevich and an admirer of Vladimir Mayakovsky.  He despised children, but was a talented and successful writer of children’s books.  A four-year-old I know laughs himself silly every time I read him Kharms’s poem “Bulldog and Dachshund.” In the end, Kharms would starve to death in a psychiatric ward during the siege of Leningrad. It seems his nurses forgot him, too.

The current collection, published by Northwestern University Press, assembles fragments of Kharms’s poetry, dramaturgy, prose, diary entries, literary criticism, private correspondence, largely arranged chronologically—a chronology that only gains in poignancy with a glance at the datestamp accompanying each entry. In 1936, with the Great Terror gunning its engine, Kharms wrote this in his notebook: 
I am incapable of thinking smoothly
My fear gets in the way
It severs my train of thought
As though a ray
Two or even three times each minute
My conscience is contorted by it
I am not capable of action.
If the prospect of reading a minimalist, absurdist, surrealist Russian intimidates, Cigale’s translation should help allay those fears. His agile rendering of Kharms’s work is as fine a representation in English as I’ve seen of the ambiguity, shading, and tense-shifting that typifies Russian prose, aspects that English translations too often muddle. If Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, and Albert Camus light your fire, or if your writing life, however difficult, seems like so much torture, or if you’re intrigued by what a story coming from a man experiencing “the existential nightmare of a decade lived under a suspended death sentence,” sounds like then, winter, that season of reflection, might be just the time to add this collection to your TBR pile.

Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle
Twitter’s got you feeling toxic? TV news doesn’t offer any relief? You find yourself refreshing your website of choice to see whether Robert Mueller has handed down any more indictments? You wonder how it was that “contempt” became the default setting for our public discourse? Save yourself the time, the screen exposure, and the inevitable frustration and wrap your brain around this thesis that, among other matters, convincingly draws a line from Raskolnikov to the Alt-Right and describes the radical left as an “anti-intellectual online movement which has substituted politics with neuroses….” This book is terrifying, outstanding, required reading.

The Body Hunters by Sonia Shah
An hour later, the nurses come back to my room, giggling, the tell-tale bite of cognac floating with them into the room. Beads of sweat streaming down my face I turn my head to the one I can see to tell her that “it really hurts.” The other one, behind me unpiling furs, fussing with the snaps on the corset says, “just a sec.” I hear a sharp intake of breath as she whispers, “Oh, my God,” and runs out of the room.

It’s probably a good thing that Sonia Shah’s exposé of Big Pharma sat on my shelf unread for so long. This immaculately researched, exhaustively referenced, and rage-inducing study chronicles the deeply disturbing abuse of the poorest of the poor in the service of reliable data for clinical drug trials. And, well, profits. I don’t know if I could have taken it when it was first published a decade ago. A bioethicist quoted in the book states succinctly the matter at the heart of the problem: “The data [guinea pigging the poor] is valuable either academically or commercially.” So what’s the good news? The book is 10 years old so perhaps the systematic and cynical targeting, dehumanizing, and embittering of the poor has decreased in its intensity. Or increased. It’s one or the other. Right?

Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum
The Holodomor Museum is about a 15-minute bus ride from my flat. In 2004, Ukrainians took to the streets to protest a stolen presidential election. That was called “The Orange Revolution” because we all wore orange at the behest of a populist—and attractive—politician. I still have my orange down jacket. I slept in it in the tent city that went up downtown, shutting Kyiv—and effectively the country—down. Got pneumonia that year, too. Also got a new election with a different result and a president who promised to “put the bandits in prison!” but didn’t. He also promised to raise the issue of the Holodomor—the Soviet program of collectivization that killed millions of Soviet citizens, mostly Ukrainians, in 1931 to 33—at the U.N. He’d get them to call it “genocide.” He made good on that, though he accomplished almost nothing else in the remainder of his five-year term. Not one corrupt official went to prison, but we got a Holodomor Museum. Ukraine is Charlie Brown on Halloween: I got a rock.

A teaser from the introduction to Anne Applebaum’s lucid examination of the artificial (enforced) Soviet famines of the 1930s:  “Applebaum proves what has long been suspected: after a series of rebellions unsettled the province, Stalin set out to destroy the Ukrainian peasantry. The state sealed the republic’s borders and seized all available food. Starvation set in rapidly, and people ate anything: grass, tree bark, dogs, corpses.”

This is not a history for the faint of heart. It is the documentation of a crime: the premeditated, targeted murder by starvation of five million people in just over two years. A sobering investigation of the human capacity for evil, it also serves as an indirect indictment of that niche within Western academia that has labored to relegate the slaughter to the status of an historical footnote. Applebaum’s dependably lucid argumentation and nimble prose makes for a substantial, if deeply troubling, read.

The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Mark Lilla
I’m trying to figure out what I dislike about Lilla’s charge that the liberal cause has dismantled itself.  But it’s hard to resist an argument whose core tenet is “the common good,” a phrase that is found in one form or another on practically every page of this short book. To the oft-heard insistence that “there is no right or left any longer, just capital,” Lilla offers convincing proof that there is an American Right and it has a concrete image of society that it holds to. Contrast that with the Left, which has drifted demonstrably from its core message and abdicated “the contest for the American imagination.”  The upshot according to Lilla: it’s hard to envision a political entity as rudderless as the Democratic Party winning many elections for a good, long while.

And yet, one wonders. Would there have been any measure of the kinds of civil rights advances we’ve seen in the last 2- years if they hadn’t been championed by the Left? Lilla’s unclear about which “identities” he would rather the Left had left off its to-do list. The Once and Future Liberal is an excellent argument starter.

The Given World by Marian Palaia
The thing about this debut novel is that it compels you to pay attention. It would be easy to get lost in prose this gorgeous, lives this palpable, and a story this heartbreaking, and end up at, “Pretty good. I liked it. Four stars.” But there’s a lot more going on under the surface. A word like verisimilitude isn’t enough to describe why The Given World works so well. It’s more than authenticity, there is an intimacy in the telling, as if you found yourself sitting down on the back porch with a friend of years, and she decides to tell you a story over beers. It’s a story about a young woman who seems to believe that the only acceptable alternative to shooting yourself in the foot is shooting yourself in the head, and yet, she makes her way. This is grown-up fiction that has not yet consented to leave me at peace. A haunting, formidable debut.

The books above were those that helped me get through the year. The purifiers. Books that managed to assure me that where evil abounds, grace abounds all the more.  Tyrants, robber barons, cynics, and cyber-bullies don’t stand a chance when confronted with intelligence fueled by grace. And grace takes work. Good news: winter is on its way. Lots of time to read, to prepare for spring, that awful season when the river ice breaks up and the bodies begin to surface.

Finally, what follows is a listing of every book that made good use of my brain and heart in 2017. I highly recommend every one.

Emperor of the Earth by Czeslaw Miłosz – Essays on life, society, art by the Nobel laureate

Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin – A Scottish girl’s fight to survive, set in Edinburgh.

A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre – Kim Philby, deception in the spy game. Thrilling.

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter – Don’t let the title trigger you. Smart.

Human Acts by Han Kang – Political turmoil in South Korea. Outstanding.

But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer – If you love jazz. If you don’t, have you considered therapy?

Feral by George Monbiot – Could a romantic vision of the environment save the planet? Maybe.

The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric by Sister Miriam Joseph – Oh, the blessing of an old-style liberal arts education.

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense by Francis Spufford – Can faith still work? Survey says: Yes!

The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov – Radioactive love from a banned Uzbek writer

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Erudite, trenchant, and certainly right, Taleb makes a case for beneficial chaos, only he calls it “antifragility.”

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson – Short stories that are too good for anthologies. Outstanding, each one.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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The Grueling, Painful, Beautiful Fiction of László Krasznahorkai

Gyula and Khust and Kapušany. There’s something about the sodden, crumbling brick and cinderblock-scape of eastern European towns that I find irresistible. I’m arrested by the desperate beauty of these places: the wrecked medieval castle on the outskirts; the main street with its waterstained two-story layer cake structures in fading pastel pinks and butterscotches; inexpert patching where entropy or mortar shells have left their mark; squat cubical huts slathered in oatmeal stucco. The inevitable Erste Bank. The EURO-MODA secondhand shop. The bad pastry shop. The bad baguette sandwich shop. The Všetko! One Euro! shop. The gatherings of Roma. The improbable Cadillac Escalades of the nouveau-riche wedged into too-small parking.

For me, the allure of these towns is matched only by the pain undergirding them. I wish I was capable of enjoying a less complicated kinship with these places. Just a tourist with no plans of hanging around—here for the halušky and a few somber snapshots at the family boneyard. But like the region where my family name adorns villages and ancestral mansions, my better days are likely behind me. Like them, I am running out of time. Actuarial irrefutabilities are at work; senescence is taking chips out of me on a daily basis despite my plans, my hopes, and the people who depend on me.

For László Krasznahorkai, the 2015 Man Booker International laureate and stalwart-in-translation of the New Directions stable, these locales, or ones like them, comprise the greater part of his published fiction. Over the last dozen years or so, New Directions has released a mini-torrent of Krasznahorkai—seven titles by this soft-spoken Hungarian author whose debut, Satantango, first hit shelves in 1985. What’s the fascination with this author, a chronicler of the detritus of failed collective policies, inebriation, madness, faithlessness, and spiritual asphyxia?

Perhaps the sixth and most recent New Directions release, The Last Wolf & Herman, provides a partial answer for those wondering whether or not to read the writer Susan Sontag referred to somewhat hastily as the “contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse.” The book is a slim volume consisting of two (structurally and functionally, three) related short stories: I. “The Last Wolf” and II. “Herman”—a) “The Game Warden” and b) “The Death of Craft.” Stylistically, the latter two stories represent a more conventional side of Krasznahorkai, but “The Last Wolf”—involving a wolf we never see and a disillusioned German philosophy professor that we see far too much of—is unlike any wolf story you’ve read before.

Befuddled in Berlin, our professor bends an elbow at a local Hauptstrasse watering hole, puzzling out a conundrum: What is preferable—a life marked by futility or a life marked by scorn? Burning a hole in his pocket is a letter outlining a generous job proposal, but the faded scholar is assailed by doubt:
…he can’t have been the one it was intended for, since he wouldn’t have been invited to Extremadura, by this unheard-of foundation, a foundation staffed by people he had never heard of, asking him whether he felt like spending a couple of weeks there writing something about the region…
The sporadically interested bartender does his best to stay alert as time melds for both teller and tale in this account of epistemic hell. But spilling his story brings the professor little relief as truths and half-truths and facts lost and gained in translation slowly peel back the scab of the unrelenting disquiet that there is, despite the substantial sum offered for his services, little to be learned and less to be accomplished in this venture. But chronically broke, the professor accepts the offer.

The mantle he assumes becomes more a calling than a payday, directing him to a distant country, to confront barren wastelands and scour obscure texts in search of a beast that may never have been. We sit with the barman and listen along with him as our itinerant professor endures the generously financed and enthusiastically, if haphazardly, organized junket to Extremadura—Spain? Portugal? Both? Neither?—where the last wolf in the region may or may not have met its end. The professor is a man drowning in myth and metatext and deep suspicion, but contractually bound to codify whatever he might find, real or otherwise.

By story’s end, relentless self-accusation has the good professor lying curled, fetal, in expectation of his inevitable unmasking and the discovery that “it had been a mistake inviting him, and that they’d be taking him back…asking him not to make them look ridiculous again.”

A common misstep when grappling with eastern European writers is to misread these authors’ personal experiences of a life lived under a fractured Communism, their discombobulated personal Marxism, and their more-than-likely agnostic take on organized religion and to conflate these into a catchall label—“political”—as if that were some sort of commendation, or explanation. László Krasznahorkai’s life and work are not spared this broad misconception, James Wood calling him “a more political writer than Beckett” and Margit Koves in Adelphi “…a romantic anti-capitalist of the age of globalization who examines what happens to various forms of art and culture at the time of globalization,” both of which, while accurate, are akin to focusing on a politician’s modest handsize, or a writer’s height.

To misread Krasznahorkai as merely, or primarily, a political writer is to risk squandering the profoundly personal nature of his stories. More tragically, it is to foist a kind of sloppy activist, and determinately secular métier onto one of contemporary literature’s most sophisticated exponents of the sacred. It is to miss his elegant, if troubling, depiction of the regrettable distance at which the sacred is held from the greater part of contemporary cultural production. With his repeated exploration of the importance of the sacred to life and culture, Krasznahorkai is among the more godly godless authors you’re likely to meet. These, I submit, are what, in a widely publicized quote, W.G. Sebald was hinting at when he said that “Krasznahorkai’s vision rivals that of Gogol’s Dead Souls and far surpasses all the lesser concerns of contemporary writing.”

Though lacking his predecessor’s mad religious zeal, like Gogol Krasznahorkai directs his most consistent and pointed critique against a kind of indolence that results in spiritual vacuity, servility to baser human drives, and incurious acquiescence to the pull of a morally and aesthetically baffled culture. Although clearly no fan of conspicuous consumption, his hard appraisal of the same is more than just fashionably provisional snobbery toward rough-grind economics. Rather than limit his focus to the corrupting power of capital, he would have us seek out worth that lies beyond the realm of what is bought, sold, traded, stolen, corroded, and corrupted.

Often cursorily compared to writers like Thomas Bernhard and William Gaddis, Krasznahorkai employs nothing of the former’s self-crippling contempt for the church, and serves as a proper antipode to the latter’s flippant disregard for all things spiritual. His protagonists are not polemical, but confessional. His motif has more in common with Cormac McCarthy’s via negativa to enlightenment, populated by an absent god, human savagery, holy fools, ersatz messiahs, sacred texts, and the unwashed but heroic who are consumed by the task of making things right. But when making things right proves, as it inevitably does, beyond the capacity of a Krasznahorkai protagonist, it is madness, exile, and ruin that follow.

Audible in the creeping dementia of these central characters —the doctor in Satantango, Korin in War & War, the hapless Valuska in The Melancholy of Resistance, and Herman in “The Game Warden” – are echoes of Samuel Beckett’s crone in Ill Seen Ill Said:
Already all confusion. Things and imaginings. As of always. Confusion amounting to nothing. Despite precautions. If only she could be pure figment. Unalloyed. This old so dying woman. So dead. In the madhouse of the skull and nowhere else. Where no more precautions to be taken. No precautions possible. Cooped up there with the rest. Hovel and stones. The lot. And the eye. How simple all then.
What Beckett manages stylistically in brevity and quick-cuts, Krasznahorkai accomplishes via what his long-time translator George Szirtes has described as “a slow lava flow of narrative.” The ancients might have characterized Beckett as melitta—the sting of a solitary bee, repeated a thousand times, and Krasznahorkai as murias—a thousand individual ants moving in a wave. In regard to the latter, this quite consciously nurtured device of the paragraph- or page- or chapter- or story-long sentence is on full display in “The Last Wolf”—a 50-page story comprised of exactly one sentence.
…how could he explain how long ago he had given up the idea of thought, the point at which he first understood the way things were and knew that any sense we had of existence was merely a reminder of the incomprehensible futility of existence, a futility that would repeat itself ad infinitum, to the end of time and that, no, it wasn’t a matter of chance and its extraordinary, inexhaustible, triumphant, unconquerable power working to bring matters to birth or annihilation, but rather the matter of a shadowy demonic purpose…
George Szirtes’s fluid translation of “The Last Wolf” maintains this feel of textual surge, of ebb and flow, and remarkably, of the parallel poetic structure characteristic of the ancient Hebrew ketuvim.  The above citation concludes—if that is the right word—below.  An apodosis to the protasis ending in a deep exhale in a literary selah of sorts.
…something embedded deep in the heart of things, in the texture of the relationship between things, the stench of whose purpose filled every atom, that it was a curse, a form of damnation, that the world was the product of scorn, and God help the sanity of those who called themselves thinkers…
It is this kind of writing that, even in his short stories, reveals Krasznahorkai as a writer obsessed in the parsing of the invisible. Parsing it, and then rendering it in a philosophical relation to the visible by means of sentential waves that serve as both trap and what the author calls kijárat—a way out—a way to extract oneself from the conceit, step back, and view the overwhelming detail from a distance as it fashions itself into a cogent whole. In a sublime marriage of form and function, with image-rich prose coming at us in layers of detail and perspective and internal dialogue, Krasznahorkai’s prose readily overwhelms the reader with sadness—or isolation, or beauty—of a purity rarely encountered, but which ultimately compels us to stop, move back from the page, and offer these invisible qualities our more conscious consideration.

A too-brief example: Korin, the aspiring scribe of War & War, describes his narrow escape from peril at the sleazy “Sunshine Hotel” where even the interior windows were sheathed in:
iron bars, at which Korin had hardly taken a glance than he started back, for he only saw the people there for the fraction of a second and did not dare catch their eyes again, they looked so terrifying, but the personage beyond the glass and metal grille somewhat suspiciously asked him, ‘Sunshine Hotel?’ to which Korin had no idea what to answer, but…a few seconds later he was outside in the street again, putting as much distance between him and the place as he could, as quickly as he could, all the while thinking that he should immediately ask someone for help…
This work is that of an artist who articulates the beauty and the terror he encounters, choosing to reveal it typically in characters caught up in life’s abundance, yet an abundance that’s never quite so apparent, able to be appreciated, as when it’s being wasted. The characters shaped by Krasznahorkai don’t dabble in cheap eschatologies, nor does his prose suffer from the fate of so much sci-fi and dystopian literature—drowning in shallow puddle readings of Heideggerian concerns with techné. He addresses dehumanization and the encroachment of “the last things,” certainly, but without the de rigueur fixation on artificial intelligence and the potential for maleficent feats of engineering or bio-engineering consuming life on the planet. Fear in this fiction bubbles up from springs far more difficult to dowse, flowing from motifs that lie deeper—envy, lust, and animal malevolence—than antagonists mechanistic or materialist. It is not drones and dogma and big data that dominate the landscape in Krasznahorkai country, but Cain and Abel. His demons—as with any demon worthy of the title—lurk within, not without.

In Satantango, this degeneration is incarnate in the gluttonous “doctor.” Bent on his own ruin, his home closed to all but the woman who keeps him supplied with drink and victuals, wallowing in filth, pickling in a seemingly exhaustible supply of tulip glasses of pálinka, he eventually nails his door shut so “no one would disturb him” in his work. Which work? Medicated, wrapped in blankets against the cold, peeking out his front window to monitor the movement on the street and chronicle in his journals in delectable detail the depravity of his neighbors, the denizens of this ruined town.
He woke at noon, drenched in sweat and angry, as always after a long sleep, cursing, turning his head this way and that, furious at the wasted time. He quickly put on his glasses, reread the last sentence in his journal…’They’re dead, the lot of them…or they’re sitting at the kitchen table leaning on their elbows. Not even a broken door and window can rouse the headmaster. Come winter he’ll freeze his ass off.’
And therein art meets life, capturing the appeal of towns like Gyula and Khust and Kapušany. As towns go, they tend to be compact and compartmental, designed on a human scale, lending themselves to leisurely walking, popping into hidden courtyards for a peek at what lies within. Places wonderfully accessible to the boundless speculations of a febrile imagination. And moving past these windows, it’s not difficult to imagine a dissolute physician; a plump and lusty butcher’s wife; or a didactic, alcoholic ex-state security agent within. Outside, the new paint job bought with European Bank for R&D money dries slowly as the town spirals into its inexorable, if unacknowledged, katabasis. In each one its own history of religious purges, mass executions, plague, pogrom.

It’s not just growing older, though I wish sometimes it was; that would make things simpler. No, my fascination with impending ruin moves beyond mere fetish, or morbidity. Here, in these places marked by decline, the geographic fag-end of the corpse of Austria-Hungary, there are stories lurking. Stories that resulted in the delectable stories of László Krasznahorkai. Grueling, painful, beautiful human stories. My own, perhaps, among them.

A Year in Reading: Il’ja Rákoš

Eighty-eight books on my TBR pile. Thirty-seven on the TBR reserve squad. And beyond Jaromír Navratil’s engrossing Prague Spring 1968, I can’t rightly remember much else of what’s stuffed into the extra carry-on I brought along on my last trip into English-speaking territory, specifically for the purpose of bringing it back filled with books. Still there, safe in the bag, in the same corner I dropped them, having unlocked my flat and walked into a life instantly too full. I don’t know how you make your personal value judgments, but I am not morally prepared to lump a suitcaseful of half-recalled books into my aggregate just yet.

Why do we do this? I managed to put away about 120 titles this year, some of those twice, yet, it wasn’t enough. I worked as a priest years back, but quit. When I took off the dress I also sold my entire library. Two thousand five hundred  books, conservatively. I kept about a half dozen, one of which was in English. Yet somehow, given sufficient time, they’ve found their way back. At first, just a trickle — a title here a title there. But then, in some twisted literary analogue of punctuated equilibrium, I now own more than I did then. Stacked and shelved, their covers shinier, their authors confirmable, and in most cases, their copyrights or attestations more recent by 100 human generations, give or take a millennium. But these new books and their silent scream for attention don’t fool me; they’re still bent on the mischief they’ve been up to since Gilgamesh.

I have a theory about all the reading and the writing, and it arises from simply having been blessed with the chance to slow down, to look around, and to talk to the people whose lives meld with my own. Reading is more than just our drug of choice. Writing well is more than just whistling louder past the boneyard now that our gullibility has been largely defrocked. We read and write for largely the same principal reason the ancients did: because, good Lord, we’re a damn mess. If 2016 hasn’t convinced you, I’m not sure what it will take.

I look east and then south, and through a day across the sea, and then back to my homeland where finally my glance comes to rest on The Donald, and I conclude that there are far darker shadows in the world than those cast by my unread piles of books. There are far bloodier and more intransigent problems to be wrestled with than my inability to carve out the time for Karl Ove Knausgård. Yet, there’s a kind of solace that comes with the certainty that the books won’t stop and that the pile will never shrink: it’s the assurance that I’m not alone. Not alone in my wariness of the categorical, the naively empirical, and — this most of all — the terrifyingly attractive and endemic lack of imagination that eventually infects all modes of human endeavor, as well as its ugly step-sister — the urge to repress that imagination in others.  So, I keep reading.

I loved every book I read this year, even those I hated, if for nothing else than for the conscious engagement it took for them to be written. The Old Book asserts that Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος — in the beginning was the word. It’s never been more true than at this moment: ‘Til the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, we’re here for the books.

What follows are books I read in 2016 but have read before and/or will read again. That is all.

Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink

I have lived for a while now in a big city, but come from much the sort of places Callan Wink documents in this debut collection of short stories: fly-over country, peopled with the unwashed, the insignificant, and bundles of the deplorable. Yet these lives are so beautifully observed, their piety so fragile, and their shared dilemma so unforced that it would be indecent to look away, not to care. My preference has — probably always — been for stories about the little people, and without romanticizing things beyond recognition, the broken folks Wink has imagined into existence here tug hard at the part of me that would not struggle in the least moving somewhere where the population density numbers go into free fall. To see if it would help me figure out some things: where love went wrong, where I fit, or where I might find again what was lost. Stories of substance told by a gorgeous stylist whose young enough to still give noogies to.

Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry

I have this bad habit of falling for every Irish writer I read and Kevin Barry is no exception. At the risk of lapsing into cultural stereotype, here’s why: perhaps it’s because the Irish don’t seem to possess the whine gene that infects this age. Goes double for their writers. Stepped on, starved, reviled, invaded, and subsumed, they just keep showing up, keep astounding us with the fact that grace and brutality can exist in such constant and fruitful juxtaposition. Life is an absurd joke and they are the punchline, at which nobody laughs harder than they themselves.

In this collection of short stories, Barry shows an incredible knack for making what ought to be unappealing so utterly appealing. His writing is inhabited by the anti-Facebook crowd — the uncoolest, most unenviable lives you will ever encounter. Lives that demonstrate that in the final accounting, all that ever really remains are faith, hope, and love. But faith poised to topple, hope with a leak at the seam, and love as bent as it can be and still be called love. Darkly comic and just damn dark, as filled with the sinister as they are with succor, this is writing I envy. About halfway in you’ll find “Ernestine and Kit,” likely a modern masterpiece.

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

When I first moved to the post-Soviet world, I was given this piece of advice: if you want to survive here, get used to thinking counterintuitively. That’s pretty much right. And that’s pretty much what Anthony Marra gets right in these nine interconnected stories of life “in Russia” past, present, and future. The greatest consistency of the place is its inconsistency: pragmatism meshing with fatal impracticality; ancient wisdom smothered in brutal ignorance; and Sergei Rachmaninoff composing the Divine Liturgy while across the street Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky are bumping heads and planning to burn the place down. The beauty in the ruins.

Marra embraces the paradox and the result is a set of lives vividly rendered by a writer with a flawless eye for the spare detail that evades all genre writing about Russia. The hard lives he fashions engender an uncommon empathy for a place that can be a challenge to love, and it elevates these stories from lyrical curiosities to the realm of literary fiction that would set its hand to some worthy puzzles. Free will versus determinism, and the thought that surviving in the present just might be impossible if you’re unwilling to survive the past. And that’s just for starters. What? You were expecting a “Russian” book that wouldn’t be philosophical?

Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man by Susan Faludi

First of all, love Ms. Faludi for her brain, her admirable intellectual rigor. Next up, love her for her practicality. You may disagree with her analysis, you may not, however, brush it aside as aloof, obscurantist, or the work of someone indifferent to society and its welfare. Finally, love her for her clarity. Given the shitstorm of an election cycle we just went through, clarity is at a premium. As the author demonstrates in the lives of the men she chronicles here, compassion, understanding, and progress are the way forward. Time to peel off some ugly, inflammatory labels and chuck them into the trash before the glue is allowed to set. To gird up our loins for the long-haul if we’ve any hope of figuring out where this is all headed. It’s been 15 years since Stiffed was first published, but it remains solid, relevant journalism focused on what the hell is going on with American men. Spoiler alert: the Y-chromosome isn’t the problem.

The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson

Seventeen essays, theological treatises, and rambling meditations with some loose-limbed exegesis thrown in just for giggles. Sound like an obvious stocking stuffer to you? For years, folks have been underestimating Marilynne Robinson’s superpower, namely: just as you’re prepared to dismiss her as a religious nut, she cites John Locke, links him back to Maimonides and forward to Edwin Hubble. A cage match against Bill Maher would be something to watch — for about eight seconds.

Newsflash! The priest recommends theology. Perhaps, but there’s this: Ms. Robinson’s considered worldview is drawn from literature that spans millennia. Also an eager student of the hard sciences, and as literate in Big History as anyone you likely know, Marilynne Robinson is somebody worth switching off the screen for. Primarily, because that’s exactly what she’s done in this book — she’s tuned out all the noise just to talk to us. She’s taken the time to go soul to soul. Sure, she offers few solutions, but she also makes no assumptions that you’ll agree. Even if Givenness feels a tad homiletical, she really just wants to talk. And to the ugliest questions confronting our culture she brings a grace, a patience, and a fearlessness that has a way of stripping our polities of their stridency, and when you think about it, stripped down and flailing might just be the best position from which to preserve our dignity. In an age that seems hellbent on getting dumber as it gets louder, her quiet, considered path offers a way through.

Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East by Reza Aslan

In winter, Istanbul is a $59 roundtrip flight from Kyiv. The first time I went, Orhan Pamuk had just won the Nobel Prize. I managed to be predictable and came home with a bagful of Turkish writing. But it was another Turkish writer I learned about on that trip, Yaşar Kemal, whose They Burn the Thistles knocked me flat. That anybody could still write like that and sell books was a revelation in equal measures humbling and edifying. How was it that I had never imagined that these books, and the people behind them, existed? I went further south, into deserts and mountains and fruited plains — in Arabic and Persian and Urdu, from Pakistan to Asia Minor down to the Levant and all the way across North Africa to Morocco.

Reza Aslan, author of the invaluable No god but God has, in Tablet & Pen assembled a treasure horde of this writing. Poetry and prose excerpts (prefaced with much needed cultural and historical context) from 70 authors joined, as Aslan notes in the introduction, “by intention, circumstance, and setting.” The result is a primer in Middle Eastern literature the spurns the political in favor of the human. What a concept. And a marvelous way to start learning about the Middle East you’re not ever likely to see on the news.

No More Heroes: Narrative Perspective and Morality in Cormac McCarthy by Lydia R. Cooper

I’ll allow Cormac McCarthy’s finest critic to describe what this book is about:
 …his novels present a complicated ethics. Reality itself can be rather dark, and perhaps McCarthy’s complex, knotty ethical arguments demand attention precisely because they offer necessary insight into an increasingly complicated nonfictional world.
Cooper has put together a deeply serious work that puts some common assumptions about McCarthy to the test — from his storied “absence of interiority” and “lack of psychologizing” to his supposed “rejection of narrative empathy.” She also dishes up a few surprises, revealing the reclusive McCarthy as 1) a close reader of Virginia Woolf, 2) a writer whose style is (far) more counter-Faulkner than quasi-Faulkner, 3) a nihilist, but only if you’re ready to brand Samuel Beckett a nihilist, and 4) a writer deeply invested in the concept of justice.

Along with a welcome confirmation of his sneaky classical erudition, it’s the latter part — about justice — that most engaged me. This is academic writing without a single abstruse construction in sight, and in it Lydia Cooper lays out a convincing argument about McCarthy’s oeuvre that might be summed up thus: the light never shines quite so brightly as when the darkness is working hard to overcome it. For fans and serious scholars, and particularly for those who’ve stayed away, intimidated by “all the blood,” this is your way in.

The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War by William T. Vollmann

In 1877, Chief Joseph – Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt – and the Nez Perce people, were defrauded massively by the American government. The 1,400 mile retreat toward survival on which Joseph led his people is the stuff of legend. To hear my third grade teacher, a young Apache woman, tell the story of the Nez Perce was to fall in love. No Indian story gripped us like that of Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain. “I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.” Our teacher coupled Joseph’s words of surrender with the Gettysburg Address, insisting we memorize both. She had that right, I figure.

William Vollmann is no Native beauty, but The Dying Grass — his fictionalized version of the brutal near escape of the Nez Perce people — is as engrossing as anything I’ve read in the last decade. At times, certainly, his dialogue ranges into territories both florid and cornball, the action is marked by bombast, and the Nez Perce are afforded a dialect that may fairly be described as Noble Savagery, yet the overall effect as a master novelist goes about balancing multiverse narratives for 1,300-ish pages without tumbling into complete chaos is mirabile visu. Moving seamlessly from the historical to high art, in an antiphony of the sacred and the profane, these interwoven histories of the Bluecoats, the Bostons, and the People leave us with a flawed but deeply necessary re-telling of our common history. Read this book because of Standing Rock, and because Thunder Rolling Down the Mountain deserves no less.

Voroshilovgrad by Serhiy Zhadan

“We love the things we love for what they are” the poet said. What’s to love about Voroshilovgrad? Not much. At the very least, the novel represents a courageous attempt by Deep Vellum Publishing at bringing contemporary Ukrainian writing to an American market.  Zhadan is an admirable writer whose poetry captures the problematic Ukrainian zeitgeist vital to the nation’s attempt at self-determination. In the long form, however, he struggles, and the incendiary quality of his poetry fizzles with the demands of the novel, sputtering out completely with the book’s sentimental resolution. The translation is serviceable, but uneven, with the dialogue suffering the greatest damage, and the unfortunate influence of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and their love for allowing Slavonic inversions to stand in translation too keenly felt. Word has it that Yale University Press will be putting out Zhadan’s Mesopotamia — a collection of short stories with a rotating cast — late next year. So what is this review? A heads up for Mesopotamia, which is just a better book, and kudos to Deep Vellum for taking the risk.

Crocodile Words by Dex Quire

And finally, from the tiniest of presses imaginable – Blue Guitar Intl. Press – the story of a Native American boy on a college scholarship who, mostly on a whim, translates excerpts from the Quran into some less than sacred dialects. A timely satire on what can go wrong when we conflate our pieties with ourselves and end up taking both too seriously. An effortless and entertaining take on the nature of soft coercion, and the often fine line between obstinacy and courage.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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Composed of Living Breath: On Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘Secondhand Time’

It is late in the fourth Act of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, and the romantically devastated yet resilient Nina Zarechnaya draws a parallel between her life and that of a seagull that has been shot and killed near her family’s country home. The play hinges on this moment, which dispassionately asserts how grand aspirations cannot be dismissed, even if they are brought low by human recklessness, superficiality, and indifference:

Men are born to different destinies. Some dully drag a weary, useless life behind them, lost in the crowd, unhappy, while to one out of a million…comes a bright destiny full of interest and meaning…For the bliss of being an actress I could endure want, and disillusionment, and the hatred of my friends, and the pangs of my own dissatisfaction with myself…I am so tired. If I could only rest…You cannot imagine the state of mind of one who knows as he goes through a play how terribly badly he is acting. I am a sea-gull — no — no, that is not what I meant to say. Do you remember how you shot a seagull once? A man chanced to pass that way and destroyed it out of idleness. I feel the strength of my spirit growing in me every day. I know now, I understand at last, that…it is not the honor and glory of which I have dreamt that is important, it is the strength to endure…and when I think of my calling I do not fear life.

Now I am a devoted Chekhovian from a long line of devoted Chekhovians, but it has never been less than a struggle for me to admit that Chekhov, despite his prodigious talent and the pains he went to “to get the sound right,” was certainly guilty of allowing his authorial presence to overwhelm a character. To me, Nina’s speech less resembles that of a naïve 19-year-old than the domineering, 35-year-old, world-weary, consumptive male, so much so that I’m not entirely convinced that Chekhov, consistently ahead of his time, wasn’t making some entirely other kind of meta-textual joke.

Or maybe he just blew it. Getting dialogue right has never been easy. Even the ancients, unburdened by modern conventions of verisimilitude, had their reasons for being concerned with making the text sound right. For modern authors, this task has come down in the form of a necessity to capture the patterns of ephemeral speech in physical form in such a way that it might, at least, suggest authenticity, plausibility, durability. The plain fact is that if it doesn’t sound real, how many modern readers will bother to venture beyond page two?

But what tack to follow when one encounters literature — celebrated literature — that presents itself as fact but sounds like so much fiction?

“We had an Invalids’ Home in our town. Full of young men without arms, without legs. All of them with medals. You could take one home…they issued an order permitting it. Many women yearned for masculine tenderness and jumped at the opportunity, some wheeling men home in wheelbarrows, others in baby strollers. They wanted their houses to smell like men, to hang up men’s shirts on their clotheslines. But soon enough they wheeled them right back…They weren’t toys…It wasn’t a movie. Try loving that chunk of man.”

So who is that? Kurt Vonnegut? W.G. Sebald? Kōbō Abe?

When 2015 Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich began writing her cycle on Soviet history, variously referred to as “Voices from Utopia” or “A History of Red Civilization,” she had little idea of what she was getting into. As she recounted in a recent talk, “it wasn’t until finishing up my interviews for ‘The Last Witnesses’ [not yet available in English translation] that I understood what I was describing with this approach. I wanted to write about this paradise, in the Russian understanding of it.”

This week, Alexievich’s most recent book Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets was released in the United States, taking its place in an estimable lineup of work whose telos it is to capture the sense and nonsense of the Soviet Union. Other titles of this pedigree include notably, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. And yet, despite those novels’ indispensability for a fuller understanding of Soviet history, neither the metered didacticism of the former nor the engaging casual authority of the latter achieve the effect of Alexievich’s collage of first-hand testimony in Secondhand Time (the fifth and final volume in her Red Civilization series, though only the fourth to appear in English translation).

Alexievich, it turns out, has different rocks to turn over. Her text ranges wide, and never has utopia appeared quite so dystopian as it does in the recorded witness of the disenfranchised, the embittered, the deceived, and the delusional that inhabit these pages. Her method is that of seeker, itinerant. She wanders the blasted and ill-remembered territories of the former USSR, encountering a host of characters — dime-store philosophers, ex-military, ex-State security turned private consultant, the rural poor, and memorably, a raft of widows unhinged by the injustice of their loss — but each with a tale to tell and bread to break. It is these communal interactions, these simple lives, that give her oral history of dysfunction its heft. In this way Alexievich helps make sense of a situation as impossible to explain as it is to deny.

This urgency to assist us in grasping the Soviet conundrum comes across nowhere so effectively as in one particularly idiosyncratic mode of Alexievich’s reporting in Secondhand Time. Here she includes longish sections of seemingly scattershot testimony, unreferenced and decontextualized, presented rapid-fire, as if she were simply regurgitating what she heard while walking through a crowded railway station, jotting down overheard snippets of conversation, allowing herself a liberal dose of ellipses to reflect the bits she didn’t quite catch.

‘The devil knows how many people were murdered, but it was our era of greatness.’ — ‘I don’t like the way things are today…but I don’t want to return to the sovok, [discredited, retrograde “Soviet way” of thinking & living] either. Unfortunately, I can’t remember anything ever being good.’ — ‘I would like to go back. I don’t need Soviet salami, I need a country where people were treated like human beings.’ — ‘There’s only one way out for us — we have to return to socialism, only it has to be Russian Orthodox socialism. Russia cannot live without Christ.’ — ‘Russia doesn’t need democracy, it needs a monarchy. A strong and fair Tsar. The first rightful heir to the throne is the Head of the Russian Imperial House, the Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna…’

These sections, subtitled “Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversations” go on for pages, like the graphomaniacal, rambling thesis of some importunately zealous, nicotine-oozing Marxist — and Fulbright hopeful — theater arts student from Lugansk. And while the collective dissonance of these quotations might rightly clang on the Western ear, to me they sound like home. The complaints, the confusion, the grasping for meaning recorded in these pages could have been lifted, verbatim, from conversations I’ve had around Kyiv with an old landlady, a wannabe capitalist rainmaker, a frighteningly accessorized Orthodox pilgrim, or a nicotine-oozing Marxist theater arts major…

Like the improbably warped and yet wonderfully apt associations that spilled out of Chekhov’s imagination, the reporting in “Secondhand Time” makes extraordinary demands of the reader, while offering — to the patient reader — insight otherwise unavailable into what made the Soviet clock tick, albeit counterclockwise. This is a book rendered meaningful, rendered necessary, because of the difficulties it presents and the contradictions it documents. Its truth lies in the resolute confusion and resultant collective cognitive dissonance captured by Alexievich, and in her refusal to pronounce judgment on even a word of it.

Secondhand Time is a strong closing act to Svetlana Alexievich’s five-book cycle chronicling the last days of the Soviet Union, and of the effects of a dispirited socialism and cynical political apparatus on the lives of the Soviet rank and file. In contrast to her previous work, the absence of a single defined subject — Chernobyl, Afghanistan, Women in War — results in a book that is certainly less focused, but no less disturbing than her earlier histories.

Seventy years of Soviet socialism has given birth to the homo sovieticus, and if Alexievich accomplishes anything here, it is to alert us to his existence, as well as to the grave error involved in the summary dismissal of his complaint, or graceless satisfaction at his profanation. She takes the jingoish caricature, the pulp-fiction rogue, the faceless millions of victims of historical record, and restores to them a voice — their own.

Like Chekhov, Svetlana Alexievich is an author who writes in Russian though does not self-identify as such. She is a messenger of no particular fealty save that owed to her story. Her body of work leaves us with more than a dry history of a time, a place, a people, but with a document composed of living breath. Breathing it in, we are compelled to clasp our hat to our head and set off to nudge, to jolt, and to buffet our way through crowds of former Soviet citizens — Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Buryats, Tajiks, Latvians, Georgians — at the Kyiv, Novosibirsk, or St. Petersburg vogzal and off toward our train.

And perhaps, climbing aboard, we see there in our coupe a fair-haired young woman wearing a beret, a small dog on her lap, her luggage marked with the name of her country estate at L____________…

Svetlana Alexievich Is No Useful Idiot

1. “Our life here is just so much absurdity.” – Svetlana Alexievich

When Svetlana Alexievich and I sat down to speak in Kyiv earlier this year, I felt I’d seen this woman — all five-foot-nothing of her — before. Every day, there she is: solid as an axe handle, unyielding as a work of monumentalist sculpture. It was someone like this who tutored me in the bloodsport of Saturday morning marketing among Kyiv’s senior set. Aggression, but no violence, she might counsel. There’s one butcher we trust. If you plan to get in on his veal, show up early and show resolve. Lean in, with elbows.

I’ve also seen someone like this at my church in her tightly wrapped fleur-de-lis headscarf, weeping in front of the icon of Our Lady of Pirogoscha. The image attends silently to her supplications concerning her family — the husband drinking again and the son-in-law conscripted, sent east to the Front. She prays long and turns to leave, her hands hang limp at her sides. What solace will the semper virgine bring?

On this day, though, I know her name: she’s Svetlana Alexievich, of Minsk, Belarus, and she is the 2015 Nobel Laureate for Literature. A cat-eyed neighborhood sergeant-at-arms, with her purposeful walk and her pricey Italian boots — as incongruous as they are pristine, what with the rain we’ve been having, the April dark, and the grimy adventure of negotiating sidewalks in post-Soviet cities.

2.“Russian books are not read in decent homes.” – Ivan Turgenev

Alexievich is a writer whose métier is surpassed perhaps only by her method in the level of righteous alarm it invokes among the Russian literati. The child of a Ukrainian mother and Belarussian father, Svetlana is not ethnically Russian; raised in the political realities of Russification, of Sovietification, she has always written in the dominant language of the region. This, in light of the subject matter she addresses, has resulted in a somewhat awkward recognition of her contribution to the fabled Russkiy Mir of refined culture. Russian writers from across the talent spectrum have chimed in to declare her “not one of us.” Until very recently, her books were — if not banned — reserved from sale in her home country. A 2005 National Book Critics Circle win for Voices from Chernobyl and the 2013 French Prix Médicis Essai for Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets did little to assuage the miffed nativism of local critics, but it was the awarding of the Nobel Prize that effectively flipped the datestamp on the Russian critical response back to 1938, or 1953, or 1970.

Despite a set of remarkably brief and sanitized media reports about Nobel’s recognition of the velik i magooch russkiy yazyk (the grand and mighty Russian language), the award resulted in a more sustained series of denunciations of her work and person from major state-sponsored media. In language that would not feel out of place in a pulp fiction spy novel, Oleg Pukhnavtsev, writing for the Literaturnaya Gazeta, summed up the attitude well: “Alexievich is a classic anti-Soviet…a traitor.”

Still other publications invoked obscure World War II metaphors to underscore Alexievich’s bad behavior, even calling on long-time fellow traveler and Italian journalist Giulietto Chiesa, who checked in from Rome, publishing a scathing condemnation in KULTURA, “the newspaper of Eurasian Russia’s Spiritual, Intellectual Realm:” “Ms. Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for statements that have no basis in reality. The award is a manipulation — an attack on Russia and Putin. A political act that has nothing to do with literature.” Lesser critics lifted the exact wording from reports published in 1970 to denounce Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel, hinting at gross fabrications of sources and citations.

I have read five of Alexievich’s books. The revelations of criminality, brutality, bestiality, and degeneracy offered up by “ordinary people” and recorded by Alexievich are not for the squeamish, and the onslaught beggars credulity.

In the production of a book, Alexievich interviews up to 500 people, of which perhaps a quarter of the recorded remarks — whole or in part — will make it into the published volume. When she does identify the source of a citation, she often does so with a minimum of information — a job title, military rank, or family relationship. One may conclude, reasonably, that she is, strictly speaking, operating outside the realm of peer review and libel. Ranging from subtle to outright, condemnations of the Soviet regime out of the mouths of her subjects in her reporting are not infrequent, and are suspiciously pitch-perfect. Workshopped diatribes whose ear for Soviet stereotype would make a Ronald Reagan speechwriter blush. In Voices From Chernobyl, a widow describes in stoic terms her husband’s life and death as a Chernobyl “evacuator” (hazard containment and salvage). Note the critique, and the Russian “answer to everything.”
I got one thing out of him: ‘It’s the same there as it is here’…they’d serve the ordinary workers noodles and canned foods on the first floor…and the bosses and generals would be served fruit, red wine, mineral water on the second. Up there they have clean tablecloths, and a dosimeter for every man…ordinary workers didn’t get a single dosimeter for a whole brigade.

Another time the nurse from the nearby clinic comes, she just stands in the hallway and refuses to come in.‘Oh, I can’t!’ she says. And I can? I can do anything. What can I think of? How can I save him? He’s yelling, he’s in pain, all day he’s yelling. Finally, I found a way: I filled a syringe with vodka and put that in him. He’d turn off…
3. “Forget the past, lose an eye. Dwell on the past, lose both.” – Russian proverb

Alexievich and I met several times over the last year and spoke about her work. Perhaps the Russian critics aren’t off — she has axes to grind. Prize money to earn. She offers a wealth of biographical detail — born after the War into the family of a Soviet Army officer; not unsympathetic to the merits of the Soviet System; proudly listed among the ranks of those educated to engineer the Evil Empire, to heal it, to keep its books.

Viewed from book-distance, Alexievich could easily have continued to satisfy my expectations of the Nobel laureate, viz: political ideologue posing as writer publishing in any language as long as it is not English. Had time and fate not conspired to allow me to meet her in person, she also could have easily persisted as the very template of the honorable Soviet subject betrayed by history. The former stolnik of the regime now conscripted via American political manipulations into the role of the fitfully content democrat, one reconciled provisionally to the advantages of democracy that accompany the advent of discretionary income.

In the end, it is the 24 years that I have lived in the post-Soviet space that helps to convince me of Alexievich’s veracity. Those 24 years combined with the hours spent with her books, and now, the hours spent in her presence. This is no drone. No fictional cipher. No useful idiot. No soulless minion or Cold War rhetoric made flesh. The surest evidence is the body of work she has assembled and spread across seven books written over these last thirty years. Books that give voice to the historically voiceless. She has traveled across a territory with the land surface of the planet Mars, on trips that have resulted in the preservation of thousands of first-person testimonies of human history at its most brutal. Hardly an effort born of servility, ideology, or deceit.

I ask her about repentance — a word that repeats throughout the books that she describes as her “History of Red Civilization.” “Who needs to repent?” I ask. “And to whom?”
You know, I was a part of that. Invested in that superstition of the time and place, that colossal error, and it’s a very difficult thing to free yourself of. That’s why people were so ready to talk to me. I didn’t make myself out to be somebody with answers about what had gone wrong or what was coming next. We had no idea how it could all fall apart so quickly, or how quickly it would all come back to life. The idea itself, of real, substantive equality, is eternal. It’s beautiful. But somehow, in the Russian application of it, it always ends in a river of blood. So they talk to me.

I’d been a believer in it, just the same as they were. But I don’t know if I’d call what we’re doing ‘repentance.’ It’s more like reconsideration. We’re just talking to understand ourselves. American oversight played a big role in Germany coming to an understanding of its past, and we didn’t have that advantage. Didn’t have what was needed…the moral strength, the understanding, the intellectual elite, so many things. We’ve had to come to grips with our history as a people on our own. And so I set out to write that ‘why.’ That history of Red Civilization — Russian style.
Alexievich offers another word to describe herself:
I’m an accomplice. When glasnost came I was with everybody else running around the square shouting ‘Freedom! Freedom!,’ even if we didn’t have any idea what that meant. And when freedom showed up, and Yeltsin quickly transformed into Tsar Boris, and the oligarchs into his boyars, we understood soon enough that all we really wanted was a better life. I was part of that — past and present. And because of that disconnect, that ‘freedom’ looked shockingly similar to what we were trying to get rid of, that’s what interested me.

Not more utopia. We’d had that. We had books filled with lofty thoughts of literary types and what they had to say about the big questions of freedom and dignity. But I wanted to know what were the little people thinking. What was down in the shit? The dust. What did they want? Did they manage to get it? And the more I talked to them, the more frightening it became. The more pitiable. And it begins to occur to me at some point that Shalamov [Varlam Shalamov was a Russian writer whose work focuses on the Gulag] was on the right track in Kolyma Tales when he said that they were all poisoned by the North. That he came out of the camp as much victim as executioner. But the rest of us, the ones who made it work, we weren’t ready to make that distinction. To say who was who. We still aren’t.
4. “In Russian lit, someone is always required to suffer: the characters or the reader.” – Russian joke

In a 2009 report, the International Federation of Journalists reported that in the period following the breakup of the Soviet Union, 313 Russian journalists had disappeared or been killed in suspicious circumstances — 124 of those in murders linked irrefutably to their investigative work. Another phrase that describes Alexievich: exceptio probat regulam. She is one journalist who wasn’t shot, despite publishing three decades’ worth of indictment of the Soviet regime.

She spent the better part of the 2000s living away from Belarus in Western Europe, an existence made possible by a string of writing fellowships and the occasional prize money. But Svetlana Alexievich’s heart was bent on home. “Apart from my source, I couldn’t write. I had to go back.”

Now that she has, and despite Belarus’s retrograde take on freedom of expression, she does not worry about personal repression.
It’s funny in an odd way, you know. These great, powerful, dominating men who are so tender when you criticize them. He’s in a bit of a spot now, Lukashenko, [Belarus’s president since 1994]; he’s started cozying up to the European Union now with the money that used to come in from Moscow being spent on the war in Ukraine. So, yes, I’m still persona non grata, but he can’t pretend I don’t exist, and the books, my books, are being published and shipped in from Russia. They’re outrageously expensive, but there’s been a real raising of consciousness. People are learning who they are. What they’ve come through. When they recognize me on the street, they just come straight up for a hug. Maybe a photo. They’re worn down by living in this degraded system. They feel their complaint has been heard.

If Flaubert was ‘a man of the quill,’ then perhaps I am ‘a woman of the ear.’ My interviews aren’t interviews as such. Just talks. We just talk and my role is to listen. Listening was difficult at first because of the cognitive dissonance I experienced. All that we’d believed in.

I’ve talked about my father before. He was a beautiful man. He lived life well, and until the day he died he was a Communist. He believed in that idea, real justice, particularly for those who can’t defend themselves. But I had just come back from Afghanistan, and I ran up to him and I said, ‘Papa, we’re murdering them. That’s not what you stand for.’ He never questioned that his faith was well-placed.

Communists come in all sizes. And the idea itself — if the idea is about justice — isn’t going anywhere. I argued with university students in France and they insist that our generation got it all wrong when it followed Lenin instead of Trotsky. It’s astounding, but they’re reading Trotsky and insisting they’re not going to make the same mistake as we did. I’d been traveling to Siberia — Omsk, Tomsk — for Secondhand Time and if you think Marxism is gone out of fashion except in American universities, think again. Dostoevsky said you’ll always find these inquiring young men gathering at the watering hole dreaming about revolution, about how to make the world better. In Russia, now, their motivation is homegrown. It’s Putin. These students read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky — you can hardly believe it — and they’re putting the current regime to the test.

You know, there was all this noise about how surprised the West is that Putin has turned into this retrograde leader. That we couldn’t predict what he’d turn into today. Nonsense. Anyone who was paying attention from the first months after he came to power knew what was coming. Suddenly, the TV was filled with all those films again about the heroic NKVD and the KGB, and about the partisans, and the songs about the ‘core principals.’ All those books about Stalin. One after the other, about the women he loved, and the cigarettes he smoked, all that personal interest stuff. There were very public, State-led efforts to clear Beria’s name, turn him into some sort of social reformer. And now they’re opening a new Stalin museum and over in Perm they fired the old staff at the ‘Victims of the Gulag Museum’ and it’s been renamed ‘Workers of the Gulag Museum.’

Republicans, democrats, communists. Good ones and not-so-good. I just know I can’t fight that fight any longer. And feel no prerogative to convince anyone that there can be such a thing as a good and decent Communist. There were, in their own right. They worked for the public good. Compare them with what we’ve got going now. You have to think for yourself.

I also cannot cover a war anymore. Cannot add to that storehouse of bad dreams. Instead I’m trying to talk to them, to listen to them about love. But this is hard for us. It’s not how our culture is built. We don’t connect to the concept of ‘the pursuit of happiness’ so easily. And the result is that every story about love — about when you first met, when you looked into each other’s eyes — inevitably turns into a story of pain. Ours is not a happy culture. Not defined by a Protestant ethic — make a family and raise a family. But I will finish this book about love, though it might be not what you expect.
5. “Along with the whole world, I revere Russia humane and splendid…but I have no love for the Russia of Beria, Stalin, and Putin…” – Svetlana Alexievich

We sit in the great hall of what was once the Shoemakers’ Union Cultural Center. The wind is howling outside, a spring front coming through. In two weeks in Kyiv we will be commemorating 30 years since Chernobyl exploded and poisoned the land. And across from me sits this woman with a Nobel Prize and who wrote about the disaster. But her answers to the questions raised have been long, conditional, occasionally contradictory, enigmatic, riddling. As if every voice she’s heard would now say its part.

I want to go home. Watch Friends or anything that isn’t about murder, betrayal, brutality, or in Russian. Those immaculate leather boots. I cannot unsee her as the grandma who taught me to stand my ground in the market. The one who shoos the drunks out of the lobby of my building. Or those I saw on Maidan, soup pots defiantly on their heads after the president issued his emergency order to outlaw the public wearing of helmets, and threatened to arrest anyone caught wearing one.

This seemingly familiar woman who speaks with a tiny, delightful lateral lisp that turns the word oskarblennie (insult) into birch leaves rattling in a spring breeze. In a corner of the world as glamour-obsessed as Ukraine, she doesn’t stand out. Yet she is ready to probe the cancer of the world.

The Nobel Committee, prone to miscalculation, overstatement, and the conflation of literature with something else, insists that Svetlana Alexievich has unveiled a new genre of serious literature — a claim that Studs Terkel could have summarily dismantled. It is fair to say, however, that Alexievich has used her time of grace to produce a body of work that resembles little else in the literary firmament. A body of work in which — to the limits that her critics are correct — she does, indeed, write very little. But in doing so, she has managed to unleash the power of the collective memoir. Her authorial pose resembles something far more ancient, and far less drama-laden than the usual soviet dissident fare. As a writer she is very nearly invisible.

Invisible, but no longer unknown.

In a global political environment oriented less and less toward seeking elegant solutions to emerging political complexities, the work of Svetlana Alexievich serves as worthy admonition of the real danger of leaders who stop listening to their people. But talk to her about her importance as a public intellectual and she scoffs. She’s not interested in becoming the high counselor, seeking consensus, or striving to convince. She is content just to listen, and then to write down what she hears, that it not be lost.

Image Credit: Aleksandr Kupnyi.

Ambrose Akinmusire and Jazz in the Smoldering City: A Dispatch From Kyiv

In the 18 months since Kyiv’s Maidan protests have moved on, flared up, and fizzled in the cities of the east, Ukraine has managed to lurch into geopolitical purgatory — not as hot as Damascus, not as cool as Prague. The city has settled into the importunate schizophrenia of the post-structural, where monetization serves as antidote for nearly anything — civility, representative government. That is code for this: though no person directly responsible for the government-ordered sniper attacks of January and February 2014 has been prosecuted, Kyivites no longer have to concern themselves with actual cross-hairs of actual rifle scopes. And the money’s starting to flow again. The IMF is around, gobbling up transitive verbs: forgiving, restructuring, forecasting. Yet, for a place that is supposedly peaceful, consumed with reform, the hoi polloi have seen little forgiveness, less structure, and a forecast that is, at best, stormy. We spend, rather, a lot of time waiting for the other shoe to drop. I do.

My first encounter with Ambrose Akinmusire — the liner notes of his 2011 Blue Note debut, When the Heart Emerges Glistening — left the barest of impressions: late-20s, Oakland-born, LA-based, studied with Terence Blanchard. That biography matched with the implausible maturity of the music and my aesthetic’s nitpicking evil twin was off to discover what the trick was. Something was up. What was the true ontogeny of this most recent messiah — the one who would coax America back to jazz? Twenty-nine-years-old: Who was he trying to fool? Trying to be — Miles? Dave Douglas? Erik Truffaz? Clifford Brown maybe, mercifully back among us, moved on from bop? All the markers were in place: the Blue Note pedigree, the technical agility, the burnished phrasing, the seemingly unconscious feel for the very note the room needs to hear and when. Faith comes so dear, and the commodified — and, admittedly, the local situation — world has been hell on any generosity of spirit I may have once possessed.

Not that Ukraine hasn’t seen results — it has. Annual inflation has stabilized (sic) at 140 percent. In the capital, a U.S. dime and nickel (equivalent) will still buy you a ride anywhere our subway goes. The Parliament refuses to repeal, or modify, its privilege of universal criminal immunity. And there are Russians — two kinds: the kind who have been here for hundreds of years with their language and culture and few see any point in calling them Russian any longer; and the other kind. The latter group — here with its tanks, sophisticated mobile rocket-launchers, and deliveries of lethal aid masquerading laughably as humanitarian food and medical supply convoys — is both thankfully in the minority, and largely restricted to a territory in the east of the country about the size of the State of Rhode Island. And with the Kremlin-financed war they prosecute there, we have nearly 8,000 dead and another 1,000,000 “temporarily displaced” in the reductive patois of the political sophisticate. Ukrainian society, battling to make even modest inroads in the realm of cultural reform, is stuck with the leftovers of that distinctively post-Soviet borscht whose core ingredients are moral exhaustion, brutal cronyism, and arriviste contempt posing as sophisticated optimism.

Into this mess comes a young man with a horn, on tour with a new album entitled The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint, and perhaps it is only by me, but neither the metaphysical nor the political significance of this Oakland, Calif., musician’s presence in Kyiv goes unmarked. Brutal cops, poverty, disenfranchisement, and an empowered class that refuses, largely, to address itself to the question of dignity in identity: this black man from the East Bay has more in common with Kyiv than he probably imagines. With the written word, baseball, and jazz about all there is left to believe in, I need to find out who he is. But if my confession is honest, the truth is that Ambrose Akinmusire had me long before he ever traveled to Kyiv. From the opening phrase of “Confessions to My Unborn Daughter,” the first song on Heart Emerges, he had me.

He starts out alone, a student running through some badass warmup intervals in a practice room of a Saturday, and then a series of Perfect 4ths and a drop echoed by the piano and a forlorn Do-Sol-Fa interval that screams theme music from a ’70s TV police procedural. Followed by a concatenation (I’m going to insist) with tenor sax Walter Smith III of such virtuosity that, well, if these two don’t put you in mind of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, you’re not even trying. From that point on the man is relentless — melody after melody where the American sublime riffs on songs not unrelated to those from the old country that your grandmother sang to you both to bind you up and to break your heart.

He that hath ears to hear. Ambrose Akinmusire isn’t just one more modest variation of every other one; his horn is the one thing needful. In a hard world, where moments of authentic revelation, of unsoiled, uncompromised, and uncompromising human achievement, and unimpeded self-examination are so seldom encountered, so elusive, he is the rara avis. And even if he weren’t, even if he was just another product of the genius of American marketing, there is, arguably, no place on earth more conducive to passing off the derivative as innovative than stylishly intellectual, post-Wall, East-Central Europe. Still, finally, with jazz, hearing — live — is believing, and I would have my chance to see, to hear, to judge.

No rain since May, peat bogs that ring the city have been smoldering for weeks. The air has a bite to it, like the inside of your country uncle’s smokehouse after a three-day cure of roadkill wrapped in bicycle tire. As he locks up and heads out on his walk, a neighbor pulls on a surgical mask. He sees me and quips that he hopes the burn doesn’t reach the toxic mystery piles the Soviets buried out there in the ’50s — waving a hand at some undefined coordinate the way Kyivites do when giving directions. It was right after the War, before the city began to spread. I tell him I’m going to see an American trumpet player that evening and he disappears back into his flat and comes out with two more masks and hands them to me — one for me, one presumably for the horn player. It’s a crisp October evening, and in Kyiv — where Sting or Alla Pugacheva constitute a hot ticket — Ambrose Akinmusire has a big gig in a small hall.

The venue is a retooled warehouse a short walk from home, and the chill and the smell of smoke distract from a gimpy lower back and the moral pressure of the task ahead, a task that begins with getting his name right. His website is solicitous, complete with a phonetic rendering that shows the emphasis is on the MU — AkinMUsire. MU, the 12th letter of the Greek alphabet, the world’s tiniest bittorrent client, and, way back, something akin to the Phoenician word for water. Get the name right — at my age I may not see his like again.

When your quotidian is shreds and tatters and the hurly-burly your daily bread, it is too easy at times to shut down the frontal cortex and just let the pituitary take over. And when the horn player is late, late, late to the stage, my old man’s brain struggles to conjure up anything but the worst. And when the worst turns out to be just that he is late, and he appears intact, I exhale.

The crowd of mostly under-25s is jammed, maybe 300 in all, into a room holding half that. Overheard conversations put a lot of them as music students, conservatory types, slender boys with the slightly fey posture of those who have spent untold years under the tutelage of some humorless piano instructor. When they clap they hold their hands as if preparing to feed an apple to a horse – fingers arching back delicately, tightly. Bored-looking girlfriends, a few haircuts, and a very few from Kyiv’s emergent economic powerhouse — the IT class. There is also a fair representation of a category of Eastern European city-dweller of whom space prohibits adequate description — the gorodskoy sumashedshiy, the urban crazy. That, and four young Americans who are here for all of us.

By 20 minutes in, the quartet has managed to tear even the most device-dependent up from the glow of the screen. The moment comes with the song “Regret (No More),” a fatal blow– if ever there be — to the unexamined life. Whether he has succeeded in corrupting any of the youth in the room to the joys to be discovered in a deliberate study of, and an even more deliberate departure from, the cultural legacy left to us, only time will tell. But for those minutes Ambrose Akinmusire and pianist Sam Harris bewitch the room — the moment never to be repeated, never needing to be. It gives me no end of joy to see that this tune, so confessional, so idiosyncratic — all doits and lip-slurs and half-valving — is such a crowd favorite. The song ends and the room howls. Ambrose smiles. The Savior has not left the building.

Two hours and two encores later and it’s 11:30, and before I can convince myself that it’s not going to happen I’m introducing myself to the man in a room off the main stage. When I ask if he’s got time to talk at the end of this very long day, he is grace in action, and agrees. Then I, who can barely talk to him about music, ask what he’s reading and Ambrose Akinmusire treats it as if it’s the question he’s been expecting all along.

Ambrose Akinmusire: Ta-Nehisi Coates, right now. And James Baldwin. I had a period there where I was reading a lot of Chekhov. Those stories over and over. All that anger held me for a long time, then in the end…

My heart is racing. Chekhov? Jesus. He breaks off, distracted, perhaps recollecting, certainly tired. He is soft-spoken, deferential — qualities that appear again and again in the music — an ear for the quiet tones, a respect for voices other than his own.

The Millions: How does the reading — Chekhov, Baldwin, Coates — inform the music?

AA: You have to define your own morality. Good writing helps but it’s not something to follow unquestioningly. You work through it, it’s internal, it has to be, or it’s just formalism and not your own; you just end up doing what everybody else is doing. Personally, you end up carrying around mistakes that you can’t change and it’s paralyzing. We’re all going through that. All the time.

TM: So that’s where “Regret (No More)” comes from? Confronting yourself. A state of confession. The lament, the wail?

AA: I wrote that at a time when I was working on some things. I understood that I had to get past them, let them go. You can’t dwell on the past. It blinds you. And I want the music to lead, not follow, if you see what I mean.

I do, but I’m a little star-struck. The tone he achieved on stage had me in tears. He goes on.

AA: So it is a cry, yeah, but not in sorrow so much, but liberating. Discovery — in the abstract or in the particular — it’s personal at first, until, in time, you begin to see how universal it is, how everybody is experiencing it. The cry starts out tentative, grows more confident as the story starts to tell itself…”

TM: Stories. The ornate song titles, album titles — from out here it feels like there’s some literary process going on. I’m just standing there listening, but I’m looking for ancestry — Miles, Dizzy, Terrance, whoever. And with Sam (pianist Sam Harris), I’m hearing Bill Evans and then Kenny Barron and then nothing at all. Who am I hearing?

AA: It’s impossible to say. I listen to everything. We all do. I read everything I can and it all has its intended effect. Everybody in the band is always reading something. The great work, work that lasts, it’s never coercive. You can’t force resolution, meaning, on an audience. You have to respect their intelligence; they’ll take it where they need it to go. They decide — or not — how it all resolves. So, there’s a risk there every time, and that’s freeing for everybody.

Bassist Harish Raghavan has been part of the — let’s call it — ”interview” the entire time, but silent. What strikes me at first as poise — these are, after all, men of international reputation — now is revealed as kindness. We talk about personal things: family, Indian, Black, White, Chicago, Oakland, Seattle, and my old heart lifts.

Harish Raghavan: I’m reading the Coates, too. And Devil in the White City. The Erik Larson book. I’m from Chicago, so I’m really into the history. I’ve been listening to that Hardcore History podcast a lot. Man, that stuff is just incredible. Really challenging.

But I’m an idiot. I am Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney. I suck. He says Chicago and I blank on the Cubs. I consider, briefly, showing them the surgical masks, telling them about the air, the fires. But sometimes Kyiv, it seems, is just too much to process. The fugue passes, common sense intervenes, and we talk about the tour. ”Why Kyiv?“ I ask. Harish looks at Ambrose, who defers.

HR: I don’t know. We had this trip to Poland and the agent calls and tells us we’re going to Kyiv. We didn’t have any idea what to expect, I mean, with what you hear in the news.

With what you hear in the news. The lateness of the hour hits me — how tired I am, how tired they must be. You can taste the outskirts burning at the back of your throat. The crowd is mostly gone. I’m halfway to asking how he could stand to play in all this stink. Somebody with an American accent calls for a gin and tonic. Three shaved heads stand near the exit, watching. No neck tattoos. Security, I pray. We shake hands all around and again I’m struck by the decency of these men. I shove the masks deeper into my pocket and head out into the sour night.

Whatever they may have expected, what the Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet got was a night onstage before this cloud of witnesses, most of whom had, in all likelihood, known them previously only via the Ukrainian duality of a Facebook post and an illegal download. An otherwise unimaginable crowd in a country in the grip of a rumored war stopping to listen to a black man from Oakland and his band testify while the city burns away its edges. Ukraine heaves, working to purge itself of ideologies long dead and new injustices turning gangrenous. But for one night, here stands a man channeling James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Anton Chekhov to lead them. He that hath ears to hear.

Image Credit: cultprostir.ua.

Tend to the Wounded: Dispatches from Kyiv

1. Kyiv – 18-20 February 2015
Mikhail Bulgakov opens White Guard — his semi-autobiographical novel about the Turbin family and their experiences in Kiev during the Russian Civil War (1918-1922) — with a brief description of the winter night sky: “…highest in its heaven stood two stars: the shepherds’ star, eventide Venus; and Mars – quivering, red.” The first time I read it, perhaps 20 years ago, I groaned at the labored Prince of Peace vs. God of War metaphor. Written in the stars, no less. Ugh. Another Russian drama queen.

It happens less often nowadays, but it turns out that in the right circumstances I can still be an ass — Prince of Peace vs. God of War is about damn right. It was last year over these three days that 105 Ukrainians died when a political protest taking place about a half-mile from Bulgakov’s Kyiv home went medieval — that is, if you’re comfortable with broadening the received definition of ‘medieval’ to include turning fire-hoses on crowds in -10˚C temperatures, family-packs of Molotov cocktails, and sniper fire. This is the first time I’ve been in a hot war zone, and the only thing I’ve learned is that I’m too old for this shit.

Bulgakov volunteered for it, and then watched as the Chekhovian gentility his family enjoyed was crushed between strident Bolshevism and myopic Nationalism. For that, I can forgive him his bathetic imagery. I can also see (better late than never) how the picture works well as a fulcrum for this novel of war and its horrors, of loyalty and its limits. I can forgive him because history seems to be repeating itself here in Kyiv, and he called it in White Guard. Desperate for peace, yet no end of war.

He’s tricky about it. Tricky like Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men, which, for about 200 pages, has you thinking you’re reading a standard detective thriller, and then suddenly you’re not, at all. That level of tricky. That species of tricky.

Bulgakov teases with some noirish Kyiv urbanscapes, irritates with some tedious description of military equipment, and charms with samovars and Orthodoxy and tea on the veranda. And all the while he’s sneaking up behind you with a two-by-four, because what he’s really been talking about this whole time is collapse. Outlining the inevitable failure of those who resist conscious engagement of the world; prophesying the certainty that men will make war, sometimes assembling randomly on the same ground twice in a century; and above all, offering a nuanced critique of the tendency to cloister ourselves when confronted with an unexpectedly complex world. The novel conveys his sense of loss, of befuddlement, while managing to issue a clear challenge to the smug imperturbability — and culpability — borne by privilege in times of cultural collapse. Where The Master and Margarita or Heart of a Dog subvert with satire, you see it coming, but with the guileless White Guard you don’t. Joseph Stalin, sentimental fool, and perhaps grasping the value of a writer who could express so beautifully the futility of resistance, let Bulgakov live.

Traveling to Kyiv? White Guard is an indispensible vade mecum for the lit-minded tourist moving through streets and yards once again soaked in blood, and hoping for a glimpse into the city’s ancient heart.

2. November 1, 2013
An old soviet joke. Guy goes to a fortune teller: “For ten years you won’t have enough to eat, your friends will betray you, and your life will be a web of lies,” she says.

“Ten years?” he groans. “Then what?”

“You get used to it.”

Post-Soviet life is badly lit but you get used to it. I’m in a second floor interior room of a publicly-funded medical facility near the center of Kyiv. There’s just enough light in here to reveal some hulking thing in the shadows that swallow the opposite wall. I’m not alone. A woman is issuing clipped instructions in a voice more smoke than sound, like something out of a Soviet film from the “let’s-all-slit-our-wrists-but-let’s-get-blind-drunk-first” school. The whisperer alternates as clinic radiologist and apparent doppelganger of Margarita Terekhova, the actress who illuminates Andrei Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo. She’s also probably too young to have seen the film.

Will this generation be the one? Or will they emerge from this as jaded as their elders? In his (1993) debut novel The Year of the Frog, Slovak writer Martin Šimečka depicts the airless existence of a young man in communist Czechoslovakia. A dissident father’s political essays have left his son, a long-distance runner, blacklisted from university. His prospects truncated, the boy endures soul-numbing humiliation as he searches for a response to his censure preferable to that of simple resignation. If dignity in identity exists, then the question is not whether to resist a tyrant, but how and for how long. What impresses most about the people who undergird Ukraine’s “Revolution in Dignity” is that they, like Šimečka’s protagonist, are in this for the long run.

She extends a tiny birdboned hand and I surrender my overcoat and belt. She hangs them on a hook that she can see but I cannot. Then my shirt, which she drapes across the back of a chair. It shimmers in the soft focus of the half-light. She takes me by the elbow and leads me toward the shadows. Shirtless and out of options except to follow. I’m breathing through a straw. We stop near the hulking thing — some kind of metal booth on a six-inch platform. She helps me step up and inside and tells me to cross my arms above my head. Her cool hand on my back, she urges me to lean forward onto a metal sheet, which I — freed of any thoughts of resistance — do. She’s off toward her booth, closing a door, punching a button. An analog of her voice pulses over an ancient speaker in an invitation to corruption — “breathe deep, hold, do not move” — followed by an electric hiss and a thud. The voice comes back on to tell me we are done here. I take comfort in “we,” somewhat less in “here.” She thumbs one switch in a bank of four and the room goes dark.

3. February 18, 2014
I live on Podil, a thousand-year-old Kyiv neighborhood squeezed between low hills and the right bank of the Dnieper River. In 1811, a fire rid the quarter of its wooden structures, and the place was rebuilt in brick and stone by Russian Empire architects with a thing for proscenium arches, fluted pilasters, and mascarons. It is robust and residential, a mix of significant Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities, and flush with small business. The bug-eyed shock of Western European news reports on “Ukraine’s Fascist Problem” strike us as particularly unreflective — tendentious, and not at all helpful. The area is proving largely impervious to gentrification: no doubt the result of our fascist problem. It takes a brisk 20 minutes from my flat, uphill and down, to reach the fighting on Maidan.

It’s late, after 11, and I am walking in a silent drizzle down an otherwise deserted Pritisko-Mykilska Street, trying hard to recall the century. I stop in front of the Florivska Convent, named for Florus and Laurus – saints and stonemasons. The sisters ran a hospital here for the better part of three centuries, and busloads of health pilgrims from Moscow still arrive each week. In summer the rose gardens dazzle. Eyeballing the distances, from this spot a right fielder with a good arm could hit the abbey, swivel left to pick off St. Nicholas Church at one end of the street, and then back right to target Our Lady of Pirogoscha bookending the other. Around another corner curves St. Andrew’s Descent – Andreyevsky Spusk to locals – and the home of White Guard, where Mikhail Bulgakov spent half his life.

4. November 1, 2013
The radiologist takes me to her cabinet and offers me tea. While we wait for the electric kettle she holds up my film to the desk lamp and stares. She wags a finger at a smudge she sees there and sits to write out her diagnosis in duplicate, longhand. It’s something you notice — the immaculate penmanship. No heart-topped i’s or schoolgirl loops: this is Klingon cursive. That and the near sacral insistence on handwritten documentation.

It starts early, this insistence. Arts or sciences, crisp classroom dictation and flawless transcription are tried and true staples of (post-)Soviet pedagogy. In Ukraine’s education system — so utterly shattered and for so long — flawless calligraphy provides cheap validation that some standards are immutable. On some days there is more solace than despair in the thought that Kyiv of 2015 is not so far removed from Kiev of 1918. Not that long ago, and with computers on every desk, the tellers at the branch where I do my banking still also wrote out each transaction by hand. “Handwritten is more reliable” they tell me. So near the Bulgakov home, who can argue.

In his engrossing Love and Garbage, Czech writer Ivan Klima writes about the inevitable cultural stagnation that follows the sanguinity of an uprising. His is the story of a Prague writer-cum-street sweeper discredited by the totalitarian regime, yet determined to pursue that which most engages him — life itself. The loneliness and alienation are palpable as Klima guides us on a lover’s tour of Prague, urging us to consider: “When does a person become what he otherwise only pretends to be?” What are the limits of a disengaged conscience? What is the true nature — and genesis — of coercion?

An older woman in a lab coat knocks and enters as we sip our tea. She’s carrying a tray of large, white onions, cut in half. She sets a half-onion on the desk and leaves, closing the door behind herself.

5. February 20, 2015
Andreyevsky Spusk is a cobblestoned switchback rising along the contours of the hill – witness to the truth that beauty in ancient cities is not a consequence of design, but of resistance to it. Stones come loose, yards overgrown, random, tumbling watercourses following a heavy rain, and light from a streetlamp curving through fog in a way that quantum physics rejects but the 19-century insists on. The street is beautiful in the way that a thing can be only at advanced age — after history has weighed in and done its worst.

Noises carry surprisingly well down its length. An arguing couple walking downhill on an otherwise quiet night are sound long before they’re light. I follow the curve up, and just past the Bulgakov home on the sweep of the wind comes the sound of drums, atavistic, insistent, from Maidan.

6. December 18, 2014
We learn that Oleh Lysheha died last night. One of the good ones — a sculptor, playwright, and the nation’s finest lyric poet. He enjoyed going barefoot in the city. James Brasfield’s translation in The Selected Poems of Oleh Lysheha with its spare Ukrainian–English antiphony is something of a minor miracle.

7. November 1, 2013
She clips one copy of her report about my slushy left lung to the enormous x-ray and slides it over to me. The other she drops onto a pile on the corner of her desk. She is 25 — probably — freckled, almond-eyed, with a Slavic jawline evolved for a Paris runway. Inside a bulky sweater and lab coat she is also tiny. I’m two of her.

8. January-February 2014
Protestors erecting Mad Max barricades control Kyiv’s Independence and European Squares: Maidan. Mounds of burning car tires endlessly replenished provide a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. Jesus, Mars, and now Vulcan. Small squads of priests vested in penitential black approach the riot lines at regular intervals to pray. Regular orchestrated volleys of gunfire come through the smoke from the police side. Casualties begin to mount. The American Embassy issues its advisory to stay clear.

I’m back at the clinic for an all-clear. Kyivites by the hundreds, including my radiologist, tend to the wounded in field hospitals on Maidan.

Image Credits: Flickr/Ivan Bandura; Sasha Maksymenko; Jordi Bernabeu Farrús.