In the novel, Herman returns to a world that remains deeply familiar, in part because nothing has changed. “I’ve always had the sense that after 1991 people in the Donbas . . . didn’t allow time to move along in a natural way,” Zhadan told me. The result was “blacked-out places, temporally anomalous zones.”
In this temporally anomalous wasteland everything existential emerges through the physical: a bit of soccer, a lot of sex, still more violence. The material objects Zhadan describes with an almost grotesque precision—wooden icons of Christian Orthodox martyrs, a Manchester United pendant, a pair of Bosch electric scissors—serve as missing words amid laconic dialogue. It is not only words that are missing. People call the Donbas the “Bermuda Triangle,” Yevhenii Monastyrskyi, a twenty-three-year-old graduate student in history from Luhansk and fan of Zhadan, told me: objects, years, people—like Herman’s brother—disappear all the time there. Many of those who remain have survived beatings of various kinds. “We all wanted to become pilots,” Herman says, of his friends from childhood. “The majority of us became losers.” And not only losers, Zhadan wants us to understand, but damaged losers, their torsos, limbs, and faces inscribed with scars. “I looked more closely at the rest of my old friends, their bodies battered by hard lives and the fists of their rivals,” Herman says. . . .
After the Maidan’s victory in the Ukrainian capital, the population in eastern Ukraine remained divided. Russian “tourists” began arriving from across the border to take part in “anti-Maidan” demonstrations. On February 26th, Zhadan posted on YouTube, in both Russian and Ukrainian, a six-minute appeal to the residents of Kharkiv. “Don’t listen to the propaganda,” he said. “There are no fascists, no extremists. None of that is true. Come over to our side.” Three days later, on March 1st, Zhadan was led away from a demonstration in Kharkiv bloodied, his head bashed in. The poet was cavalier. “I’m a grownup—it’s hard to stun me with a blow to the head,” he said in an interview later that month.
. . . .
Today the former Voroshilovgrad falls within the territory of the self-declared Lugansk People’s Republic—an entity which, Zhadan wrote in May, 2014, “exists exclusively in the fantasies of the self-proclaimed ‘people’s mayors’ and ‘people’s governors.’ “ The latter form a cast of characters that could easily be drawn from his novel: Zhadan provides telling depictions of men in tracksuits with stretched-out tattoos, glass eyes, and missing fingers. (The missing fingers are not part of the magical realism: Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the forty-something separatist who in April, 2014, declared himself the “people’s mayor” of Slovyansk, has two fingers missing from his left hand.)
. . . .
(I wrote to Zhadan in Polish about a novel he had written in Ukrainian and I had read in English. He answered me in Russian. The whole situation was very Ukrainian.)
. . . .
The graduate student I spoke with, Monastyrskyi, prefers the Donbas to Lviv, where he lives now, precisely for the chest’ and chestnost’ that supercede a more conventional bourgeois morality. For all its violence, Monastyrskyi insists, “the Donbas is full of joy and mercy—and empathy.” And he loves Zhadan for portraying these people who don’t have a lot of words more authentically than anyone else, for showing us that “these people are beautiful, beautiful in their ugliness.”