Tuesday, 29 September

Temporarily not identified

The author is debuting with the series of novels about the war, in which the experience is pivotal. The threats and pitfalls of the reading flow are obvious, aren’t they? “Oh, how many’ve fallen into that void”. But “Monolith” of Valeriy Puzik is a lucky exception. This author can tell stories.

The first novel is actually “Monolith” and one extract from the very beginning: “Death comes to those who grasp hold to life with all might. I didn’t grasp but didn’t want to die in vain. That’s why I ran to the shelter. It’s true that our state needs heroes only in zinc coffins, and yet nobody was buried in the zinc”. The terribly pathetic cliché is in first and the last sentences. The first is reproduced by the one who recalls the front: “Death comes to those, who…” The other is created as a counterargument to those who appeared on the front “…only in zinc coffins”.  What if there is no clear message – I ran, I didn’t want to die – between these two absolutely gross lines? Then, the treasured divergence won’t be so apparent in “Monolith”. And here – the truth of experience. And here – the automatic systemic language “bluff”, which cannot describe this experience. And here – a living person, stuck between them.

Inner speech of the protagonist is the mixture of agitation and TV-sermon. This is how Sashko thinks and flees from his memories. More easily? The man-narrator always compares peaceful life to the life at war. Shaking the morning marshrutka – the comrades hit the landmine. The restoration works are carried out on the cemetery and old burials are dug out – the life wasn’t appreciated at war. The raindrops slide on the bus window – the soldiers pack into the Transporter T4. The logic of comparison isn’t distinct. It just cannot exist and there’s no need. He’s back home and works as a handyman on the building works. And here’s the phrase for which the waves of cliches are made: “I’m working here in my military uniform“. That’s all. No need to explain. He brought the war with him. He worked there, he works here. He’s in uniform.

Actually, what is this story about? Sashko has a wife and drinking issues – the triangle cannot get along. He binge-drinks because of bad memories and despair but also because of a habit. Completely realizing that he destroys his family. He doesn’t need the family. Next to the building works there is a gravestone of a married couple on the survived part of the cemetery, by the way. Every day he looks at their photos and notices: “Their only reminder”. Actually no. If only the grave had been removed and the people hadn’t died young, it’s natural to assume that somewhere lives their child who is “the only reminder” de facto, not a gravestone. Sashko remembers the war despite the gone friends. He won’t leave any reminders after his death. They don’t have children.

After all, this book is about war.

In “Monolith” there are thirty novels, the equal number of sketches-reports, give or take, and belles-lettres novels. “Report” novels in “Monolith” are so-called sketches directly from the front for several hours or even a dozen minutes. It’s hard to read them. Literally hard, not emotionally: unintelligible language. Puzik inserts professional military slang in his book. Basically, how else should his characters talk to each other, right?

It isn’t a mockery at the “civil“: the world of Puzik’s characters is absolutely alien to us. We aren’t welcomed there, we just aren’t relevant there, so nobody will comfort us and clarify anything for us. Because only optimistic literature up to the 1914 year couldn’t give a thought to the real-life extremes, clamouring: “God takes the times away and leaves the space for us”. At the recent war, God takes away either time or space or speech. The language of dialogues is coded and narrowed. And there is the inner speech of the character – pompous and pathetic. There’s the war on the open space, which is well-shelled. The months in the half-destroyed cellars are passing by, where the concrete platform is hanging over the heads of the sleepers, threatening to smash them dead. It happens in the attempt to write about the war: the time and space are slammed shut causing the deformation of language. In “Monolith”, it’s well-seen.

After all, monolith from the title is rather a composite monolithic reinforced concrete than an integral block of stone. And the building monolith to be useful and functional at least two substances should be melt, under normal conditions unmelted. And let’s say that on this foundation the house is raised. The place, that is to say, where you return.

But it’s not the end. Live and real language of the combatants in “Monolith” opposed to the language of the official proms, slogans, army record and charter. Puzik’s characters fight in the voluntary battalions and allow themselves to criticize the decisions of the Ministry of Defense and that, what they sometimes call a “barmy army“. The antimilitary mood of “Monolith” is more apparent than anti-war. It impresses because this exposes internal conflicts of the praised military brotherhood.

And all sup chaplain from one bottle, who dilutes the Word of God with okovyta (for disinfection perhaps; and yet the moonshine is baptised, so that’s OK) and “blue combatant snail”. It is called Snake – “avatar”, who is often drunk till incontinence and rather walk without pants but with a standby shop in its briefs (but without a gun). The drunk conversation about the sense of life and the death fear is lasting. It is substituted with delirium tremens and effective search of the bombs in the pissed briefs to throw them at the demons that suddenly take after chaplain. Farce isn’t Puzik’s method, humorous effects aren’t his cup of tea. Therefore, in this ditzy narration, it’s better to strain your ears at the sounds of background than to look at the comic foreground. And then: “If rumbles somewhere on the horizon – don’t care”. And distant (how many kilometres?) war seems the sea to the “combatant snail”: it riots and lasts forever, uncontrolled boundless element. You can get drown in it or in the bottle. Usually, people aren’t eager to get drown in the sea.

But it’s important to realize: weather numerous unscrambled “let the self-propelled gun wrap you, you will shoot off the Orcs then“, or these farce plots like in “Combatant snails” don’t pretend to be exotic. These are clearly domestic, even trivial details. It’s exactly how they binge-drink on the front, wasting the time of unbearable expectation between the fights and exactly how they speak there, saving this time. It’s a down-to-earth wiped routine. The consistent appalling routine – unnoticeable with a naked eye. Puzik with his apparent manner masterly turns familiar to scary and ghastly. Sardines from a can? – Pedestrian. Sardines from a can, which are eaten with a knife? – Scary. Sardines from a can, which are bolted down with a knife, with a flak jacket and helmet on because of the cellar ready to crumble is being shelled? –  Ghastly.

When you lose the ability to spot the routine, it becomes dreadful. The German language which knows how to reflect on such psychological states (because of extreme war experiences) has an ideal instrument for this: Heimlich within a help of two letters becomes unheimlich which means familiar turns into scary. Ukrainian contemporary prose needs the deceased to call them “two-hundredth” or “temporarily not identified”. And while reading it’s never said straightforwardly  – “was killed at war”.

It would be simplifying to call “Monolith” a war or an anti-war prose. It wouldn’t be the truth. Puzik draws not the war, but the death at war. And even the return to the “civil life” cannot rescue from it. He struggles not with the war but with the death. Anti-death prose, so to say.

There’s scary. And there’s ghastly. To be exact, the ghastly happens because in “Monolith” scary and ghastly are completely different things. The stories from “Monolith” about the teenage-boy from the Khmelnytsky region are built as flashbacks to military prose. The records of ghastly are made and scrutinized there. To break into the house of the village’s freak, who steals crosses from the graves and foresees death, to watch his death – and, all of a sudden, to cease fearing unknown. To hit the last from the war mine with the friends-daredevils, somehow stay alive – and suddenly cease fearing miracle. To go hunting and cease fearing wolves and death that you cause. What did he – this generalized Puzik’s man-character – used to be afraid of thirty years ago? It’s scary to be ill. It’s scary when an old bomb explodes. It’s scary when the barn with a car catches fire from a cigarette end. It’s scary to get drown. What frightens you now? It’s: “That’s the point. Killed someone – good! No? So, the next time“. The victory at war is impossible in the Puzik’s world. Its result isn’t the defeat or victory of the army/country, but complete personal crash of those whom this war touched.

All stories of “Monolith”, without exception, are streaming into one plot, no matter what’s going on in them. To cut it short with a quote from the outstanding novel of “Monolith”: “These are your dead teachers“.

Sashko drinks heavily that night because he is visited by his dead comrades, who are standing and waiting. In the former shelled school there is a classroom where the photos of the deceased with a note when and where they died are hanging on the walls. The ghosts get together in that room, waiting on replenishment of their rows. One day, the father couldn’t shoot the wolf dead because he saw his gone comrade in it; after a while, when the wolves attacked the village, the uncle of the character died. He’s also a loner and drunkard, who saw the dead who guarded him. It’s easy to calculate: the uncle was an Afghan war veteran. And so on, and so on.

The mysterious plot is depicted by the novel “Adam’s Dust”. The young man takes part in the events on the Grushevskogo Street. January 20, the butchery is nearly to start on the Maidan. His long gone grandfather visits him. The grandfather must lead a mortally wounded young man to the arch of Purgatory and in this manner free himself, delegating this mission to his grandson. The dead in Puzik’s book aren’t precursors, they’re conductors. That’s how the military brotherhood is formed: “They emitted light and, tied our hands with transparent threads, leading us as captives“.

What’s the war in “Monolith”? When the dead call new deads. When grandfathers send their grandsons to death.

It’s dreadful. Dying, you know, is simply frightening.

Hanna Uliura

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