Sunday, June 26, 2016

Book 165, Chechnya: "I Am a Chechen!" by German Sadulaev

I know Chechnya isn't a recognised state by any international bodies. But while Russia and the UN don't recognise self-determination, that's no reason I shouldn't.

And anyway, this book is amazeballs.

Interesting fact: German Sadulaev didn't even mention the Chechens in his first book, Radio Fuck. And why should he have? He was a lawyer in St Petersburg, writing in his first language, Russian. He passed as Russian; indeed, his mother's ethnically Russian.

But he was born in Shali, a village in Chechnya. And he only escaped the violence there because he'd gone off to study in Leningrad at the age of 16. From a distance, he watched his idyllic hometown descend into war and chaos, brought on by the onslaught of heartless Russian bombers...

It's hard what to make of the text, actually. The first few chunks are written as dreamlike memoirs, clearly using autobiographical material, but with tonnes of magical realism thrown in: he claims all these portents of madmen and bleeding cattle that foretold the destruction; empathises with the agony of the swallows who saw their nests bombed to bits (the souls of unborn children, according to Chechen tradition), associates the race of the Chechens with the kshatriyas who were expelled from India in the age of the Upanishads... yet always returning to the detail of the "I" whose biography corresponds with that of his own: half-Chechen, half-Russian, suffering from the survivor's guilt and the weight of traditional machismo that prevents him from weeping out his pain.

And as the book progresses, we get more into the realm of fiction: in "When the Tanks Awoke", he confesses to the common childhood fantasy of having a twin, which eventually develops into a tale of himself as two boys, Zelik and Dinka, one with a Russian father and a Chechen mother, one with a Chechen father and a Russian mother, playmates and rivals who eventually end up facing one another on the battlefield. Later, clear fictions: "Victory Day", about an old Chechen World War II Soviet soldier who beats up a Neo-Nazi in Lithuania; "Snuff", about a phantom lover in New Orleans.

But always the sadness, always the sense of exile, always the sense of a kingdom lost—not just the Shali of his childhood, but the Soviet Union that he grew up proud to be part of.

It's strange to be reading this as Chechen literature, really. He's from Chechnya but not part of it, able to separate himself from the horrors of the war. But his family has suffered through it, been nearly killed by the sniper fire; he's had to demand that Russian flight crew allow his paralysed sister the right to stay on a plane because Russians have only read the state media that claim only terrorists have been attacked, when in reality, it's everyone, all the innocents, all those who once believed they were one people.


Representative quote: In the combat report from the front I heard that during the battle of Urus-Martan the Shali tank regiment had been eliminated. An enemy formation. When Russians die, they talk of 'losses', or even say they've 'fallen'. When Chechens die, they describe them as 'eliminated'. Because Chechens are the enemy. I too am Chechen: the enemy. And when I die, they'll describe me as 'eliminated'.

Next book: The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, from Ukraine.

No comments: