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A Ukrainian Poet, Two Books and the Dogs.

By Manoel Chavanne

A performance by Slava Vakarchuk and Kharkiv musicians in the demolished courtyard of the Palace of Labor, photograph by Serhiy Zhadan.

For those of you familiar with him, you have probably guessed what this article is going to be about. For everyone else, let me introduce you to the amazing Serhiy Zhadan, or in Ukrainian, Сергі́й Жада́н. He is very famous in Ukraine but less so abroad, even though he certainly is quite an interesting character. He was born in Luhansk Oblast (province) in 1974, grew up there before moving to Kharkiv to go to university and where, as far as I can tell, he still resides to this day.

He first became famous for his poetry which I can't really judge, as my Ukrainian is far from good enough for that, and translated poetry loses a significant part of its appeal. I have however taken time this week to read a couple of books Zhadan published and found them both quite enjoyable, more on this later. On top of that Zhadan is also the lead singer of a rock/ska band called Жадан і собаки which means Zhadan and the Dogs. If you look for the band in Ukrainian, its most popular song on YouTube is this one with almost 8 million views. If you look for it in English, you get to this playlist which lists several songs with more than a million views. Last but not least, his English Wikipedia page also lists social and political activism as some of his many activities. All of us mere mortals only have 24 hours a day, so we couldn't dream of doing these many things, but somehow Zhadan does it all and more; but let's get to the two books I want to review in these columns.

The Orphanage (in Ukrainian: Інтернат)

This will be the first time I recommend a fiction book, but this novel touches on a lot of different interesting ideas. We never really know exactly where the story happens, but it is clear that this fiction published in 2017 takes place in an Eastern Oblast of Ukraine, one where Russian forces have been shelling, bombing and killing soldiers and civilians alike for over a decade now as I write this in March 2024. The story only lasts 3 days in the book as we follow a Ukrainian teacher trying to get to an orphanage on the other side of the front line.

Two quotes kept coming to mind while reading this book, the first one is from ancient Greek politician Pericles, “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you.” Or its more intense version by US author Fannie Hurst, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” These apply quite well to the main character as he keeps saying that he doesn't want to take sides, he doesn't want to get involved and claims there's nothing he can do about the situation anyway. The author, and I, quite clearly strongly disagree with this attitude as Zhadan has been doing quite a lot of volunteering to help Ukrainians (more on this in the second book I'll review today) and as I have also been volunteering in Ukraine for close to 9 months now. Sure, one individual isn't going to change the course of the war but if millions of people do their part it will have a significant impact. This leads me to one of my favorite quotes, this one by British author David Mitchell, this David Mitchell, not one of his many homonyms, who wrote, “No matter what you do it will never amount to anything but a single drop in a limitless ocean. What is an ocean but a multitude of drops.”

Without wanting to spoil the book, as I do recommend you read it, you will have guessed that the main character's life is impacted by the beginning of this absurd war as he tries to go about his life pretending that one can stay neutral. The main character, Pasha, interacts with a lot of different striking people throughout the book, some very altruistic and selfless, some aggressive, some suspicious, some brave, some oblivious to the situation, but all of them feel incredibly real. In fact, they're so realistic sometimes that one can't help but wonder how much has been invented by Zhadan and how much is real genuine experiences that he has lived or that some of his friends or family members have gone through, which leads me to the second book I'll discuss today, this time full of real stories.

Sky Above Kharkiv – Dispatches from the Ukrainian Front

This book covers 4 months of Zhadan's life from the day the full-scale invasion started on February 24th 2022 to June 24th that same year. During these four months Zhadan posted daily sharing his experiences living in Kharkiv and participating in various volunteering projects. Him and his friends managed to get all sorts of things for people, from combat boots, drones or thermal imaging cameras for soldiers to generators, microwaves, flashlights and even vehicles for civilians and hospitals.

Through these daily posts one can only imagine what the residents of Kharkiv during these difficult times must have felt. One thing I found quite interesting in this quick read was how positive Zhadan managed to remain, most of the time, in such a dire situation. For example, he often finished his posts by saying “So rest up, my friends. Tomorrow, we’ll wake up one day closer to our victory.” and/or “Ukrainian flags flutter above the city. :)” I assume to show the world that Ukrainians were/are still hopeful, combative and incredibly resilient and to motivate his readers to continue to try and do what they can.

Since I mentioned his band in the introduction I will share a tiny spoiler from this book, Zhadan and his band organized many free concerts in the Kharkiv subway as residents were sheltering in there while Russians were bombing their city. This is the kind of hopefulness and will to continue fighting we should all feel deep inside. This is what Ukraine needs so dear reader, keep up the hard work, stay positive and keep doing what you can, day in and day out and remember “tomorrow we'll wake up one day closer to our victory.”


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