Thursday 6 January 2011

'The best books on war are those written by deserters.'

I Am A Chechen!
by German Sadulaev

A book sent on spec by Harvill Secker, a book which doesn't appear to have been reviewed by the national press at all ( a quick search online threw up only a profile in the free Metro and this item on BBC World Service) - and yet a book that really deserves to be read. In an era of rolling news where worldwide conflict scrolls past on a ticker, to be forgotten as quickly as it has been read, a book like this 'novel' from  Sadulaev is a worthwhile and fascinating read. I'll hold my hand up and say that the Chechen situation is something I had very little awareness of bar a couple of newsworthy hostage takings that ended in tragedy at a Moscow theatre and a school in Beslan. The political history of many Soviet states is complicated at best and the same is true of the Chechen Republic. Accused by Stalin of Nazi collaboration during the Second World War this autonomous soviet republic was disbanded, its population deported and the territory carved up before being re-established by Kruschev. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 there was more turmoil with the Chechen Republic seeking independence as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, something it achieved after the First Chechen War with Russia ('94-'96) before being taken back under Russian control in The Second Chechen War ('99-'00). Sadulaev himself left his homeland in 1989 at the age of 16 to study law in St Petersburg, missing the conflict and finding a country devastated on his return with many friends killed. This book is very much born from his guilt at that absence, an intensely personal recreation of his homeland that melds myth, memoir, fiction and a desire to memorialise those many thousands of civilians who are denied a voice even within Russia, let alone the rest of the un-watching world.

The book comes roughly in three sections. The first and most exciting, entitled One Swallow Doesn't Make A Summer, subtitles itself A Tale in Fragments and consists of 58 numbered chapters, many just a page or two. What makes it exciting is that these fragments veer wildly from folk tale to fantasy, metaphor to memoir, there isn't a point at which the reader can settle down and think 'Ah, I know what I'm reading here.' The swallows of the title adorn the cover significantly and we learn that 'The swallow is a totem, a sacred bird, to kill a swallow is a grave sin. Nobody kills swallows.' Their arrival heralds the beginning of summer and their annual migration and return means that with no swallows ever seeming to die in Shali, Sadulaev's ancestral home, they are almost immortal; the bird that returns the same one that left, year after year - the flock together seen as the souls of Chechen ancestors. In one striking section we read about their return to a devastated Shali where nests have been destroyed along with homes.

In the spring the swallows arrived. They appeared in their tailcoats, festive and happy. They whirled in flocks along the familiar streets, started searching for their nests.
Have you ever heard swallows scream? Do you think they cannot scream? Swallows chirp, peal, twitter, their high-pitched warbles modulating; how could they scream?
That spring, panic-stricken flocks of birds flew over the ruins of the houses and screamed, continually, mournfully, inconsolably.

Perhaps that contains something of Sadulaev's own shock at returning for later in the book he will compare himself directly to these totemic animals - 'I'm merely a lone bird who has strayed from the flock; it's so easy to stray from the flock when the flock itself has lost its way in the sky.' We learn about Chechen custom and folklore, the history of its people told with a similar tone to that of the ancient myths and legends. Sadulaev fuses his tales of the recent conflict with the same tone so that these personal stories take on a momentous significance, the individual 'characters' accorded real importance in the history of their country. Some stories are fable-like extensions of the everyday effects of war. A madman called Ibrashka whose irrational fear of the 'silver bird', or planes in the sky is only a reflection of the Pavlovian response of many Chechen people to the drone of aircraft after having endured such terror from the skies with attacks on the civilian population. In the very next section we hear of Dunka, a woman who was raped and went on to deliver a stillborn-child, later walking around Shali with a pram and a doll. Pregnant women feared meeting her and the story illustrates the increased frequency of stillborn births as a possible result of stress, wounds, chemical weapons or vacuum bombs. Most obvious are the fire-breathing dragons that haunt the sky. One feature of the Chechen conflict already alluded to was the air superiority enjoyed by the Russians after they pre-emptively attacked the few Chechen planes as they sat on the tarmac. After that the Chechen people lived in fear of almost sport-like attacks by Russian aircraft on civilians and also the use of supposedly banned weapons like cluster bombs.

This book caused no small amount of controversy in Russia when it was published, especially as the Russian government denies the existence of any attacks on the civilian population or the use of banned weapons. Sadulaev takes that head-on in the middle section, first with Why The Sky Doesn't Fall Down, in which a writer, holed up in St Petersburg, remembers, writes, and questions why he does so.

For whom am I writing this book?
For them. Nobody knew them when they were alive; they were ordinary people. Now nothing is left, and it's as though they never existed. But they did exist. This is my town - the town of the dead - and I should engrave a memorial plaque for each home. This is the book of the dead and it should have a line about each of them. This is my duty. For this reason I was left among the living. Left for a while.
This personalisation of anonymous victims is taken a stage further with When The Tanks Awoke which points up the blurred boundaries between what are supposed to be clear enemies as it traces the friendship between two boys, Zelik and Dinka. Zelik is a native of Shali whilst his best friend Dinka spends just three months a year in a Russian facility there known as PP-2. This isn't just a tale of Chechen boy and Russian friend, it's far more complicated than that as both boys have Chechen fathers and Russian mothers - in fact the alternating narrative voices of each chapter hide the fact that we know from the outset that only one of them has written this story, the other having died. Is it possible for us to know which boy that is? Especially in a story where the author needs a photo to remind him that there really were two boys and that his friend isn't just the product of an overactive imagination or shell-shocked brain. Despite the trickery it is this section that feels closest to a standard narrative and it makes for a moving and poignant account of the larger politics played out on a smaller scale.

The final section consists of several separate stories which aren't so much fragmented as disparate making this the least successful section for me. They almost belong in a different book as they feel far more controlled, missing the slightly on-the-hoof feel that makes the book so exciting at the beginning. This is a small grumble and shouldn't take anything away from the power of the book as a whole. If there is a danger that our overexposure to news media desensitises us to the real impact of violence and conflict then it almost makes a perverse kind of sense that it should fall to the 'fiction' writer to tells us the real story. No writer can ever guarantee that their words will ever be read by anyone or make any difference but it would be a travesty if a book capable of opening our eyes to human conflict and written with the express purpose of memorialising those that have been silenced were to disappear into a silence of its own because that same news media failed to notice it.

I know: it is disjointed, sketchy, fitful, jumbled, fragmented, broken. There is no central plot. It is hard to read prose like this, right? Easier to read linear prose. Prose that makes you want to turn pages and find out what happened next.
...But now, now come spurts of blood. Not the crimson blood that fills out veins, smooth flowing and even; this is scarlet, arterial blood, shooting in a fountain from a throat pierced by a spear, spattering you with droplets - it won't wash out easily, okay?
Do not read further.
Oh, and another thing: it's like a cluster bomb. A big container; it opens in the sky and out fall smaller bombs, a mass of hedgehogs from the heavens, the size of a child's ball; inside each little ball is a deadly filling: pellets, shrapnel, flechettes.
Did something hit your heart?


John Self 6 January 2011 at 11:16  

Very pleased to see your coverage of this, Will. I read it over Christmas, or I should say I began reading it over Christmas...

Like you I found the opening section the strongest, and thereafter I found myself more and more often wondering if I wanted to continue. The difficulty with such a freestyle approach to interwoven fiction and non-fiction is that it's possible to feel you're getting the same thing over and over again. Certainly I didn't feel by page 130 that I had learned or appreciated more than I did at page 50. So I quietly abandoned it, but kept it safe from the chucking pile, as it's so beautifully written that I really would like to go back to it.

Another point is that the labelling of the book as fiction is interesting. Clearly we are intended to treat the allegations of abuses by Russian troops and government as fact, but how can we be sure? Just because the book comes from the point of view of the underdog, does that make it any less propaganda than our blinkered news-fed perception of Chechens are Islamist nutters who carry out atrocities in schools?

Anonymous,  6 January 2011 at 17:44  

this seems like one of those books that strides fiction and non fiction the whole chechen situation is very difficult ,this looks like a interesting read ,all the best stu

William Rycroft 6 January 2011 at 22:35  

Thanks for the comments gentlemen. This a book that does ebb and flow slightly due to its scatter-gun approach. There are sections that are weaker than others but it's a very worthwhile read. That's a good point you raise about classification John and propaganda. What I liked was the way which the present situation was woven into a myth-like narrative. Each side in a conflict has their own version of events, their own narrative if you like, and so it seems fair enough that fiction, especially one that involves elements of fable and fantasy might be the most appropriate medium in which to represent it. The question of what is absolutely true would always be difficult to settle absolutely, but I'm always suspicious of any power that claims not to have killed any civilians at all. By the same token Sadulaev later in the book acts up to reputation of the Chechen as an aggressive danger when in confrontation with a genuinely dangerous Russian gangster. The blurred lines are what made the book such a good read.

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