Stranger: First Blood

Serhiy Grydin. Stranger. Kyiv: Akademiia, 2019.

A couple of years ago, a young man was excited to share the impressions of watching Rambo: First Blood with me. “Having seen this action film, I immediately understood that this film was about a man with PTSD! He is not just cool, he may be disgruntled or angry!” I even didn’t think about it. Why after the first time I saw this film in the late 1980s, it seemed to me, a young inexperienced teenager, not just an action movie? We watched it as a film about a soldier who returned from the war to the place where he wasn’t wanted back or welcomed. The answer was immediately found: among us, there were Afgan soldiers who returned home. We saw such people next to us and if we didn’t understand their behaviour we, at least, had an idea of their motives. And now this young man recognizes something that concerns his life experience and his surrounding in this entertaining cinema.

“And where is the war here?” Gavryliuk showed with a hand. “There are civilians walking, boys and girls kissing,” he showed at the next bench, “cafes-restaurants, cinema!” he took a cigarette, “and you can’t get used to the asphalt under your feet. And you think that you are about to blow up on the mine,” he spat under his feet. “F*ck this all!” he cursed loudly. “We are strangers on this feast of life!”

Gavryliuk is a soldier of “the fourth wave”, recently – literally a few hours before this monologue – he has been demobilized. In a few kilometres from the frontline, life goes on in which he is not welcomed back. The life which he doesn’t crave for. Exactly like this: oncoming movements of unwillingness and resistance. By the way, when was the last time you heard the word “civilians”? Pay attention to how the number of exclamation marks increases until the finale of the monologue. How Gavryliuk tries to delegate his experience to some “you” who don’t feel the asphalt (the ground falls out from underneath the feet, it’s a good interpretation but the direct meaning prevails). How same Gavryliuk tries to define those who lack this experience as strangers. Kissing, hanging out in cafes, watching films! Incidentally, Gavryliuk with comrades leave a restaurant (more precisely, they were kicked out) and go to the prostitutes: not so different experiences, equally “civilian” ones. And everything will end up with a quote which doesn’t seem a quote to the speaker.

This is almost the very beginning of the novella “Stanger” by Serhiy Grydin and it’s already clear – what it is about, what concept it has, from whose experience position it is narrated. And it’s is also already obvious that it won’t be easy to read.

Senior Soldier Mykola Gavryliuk served a year, give or take, on the frontline and now he returned home, to his father, brother, wife and two sons. He fails to get used to civilian life. The bother doesn’t understand why he went to the army. His eldest son, a teenager, doesn’t respect the father whom he had already forgotten and doesn’t appreciate such traditional trifles as breakfast made by father. The one who during fights dreamt about cosy family breakfasts forces the son to eat it and then brutally beats him to blood. Here it is, the first blood. He beats him in front of the youngest son who is scared of Gavryliuk to death after this.

He lost a job in the security office, he can’t work as a builder like previously, few want to give jobs to ATO survivers, they said to be uncontrolled. He has no strength and patience to be registered in the employment service and on social assistance to the veterans, everyone requires some kind of papers and doesn’t believe in the word that he served. The wife becomes more aloof, but he continues turning his back at her in the bed because he doesn’t like the way she washed up his uniform, because she allows herself to complain that it’s hard to raise children alone. He decides to come back to the frontline, then the wife tells him about the divorce since she can’t stand waiting for him home anymore, horrors, poverty. And here his father calls to invite him to fish.

No, he doesn’t want, he is a stranger, alien to everyone, everyone doesn’t appreciate him, hates him. Then, downing a bottle, he locks up in the kitchen and rips a grenade check which he caught from the frontline just in case. The irony: Mykola Gavryliuk is a “winner” plus “strength” (if translate the name literally). We won’t look neither for victory nor for strength in the “Stranger”.

Interestingly, how many people will be affected by the explosion in this five-store run-down building? And the family which don’t have money, will it become happier from the father’s deed? The tale opens with the conversation of two old women under the porch, who when hearing the explosion from the flat of “Kolka-the-soldier”, melancholically discuss that everyone returns from there “a bit numb” and slowly stand up from the bench. This is what people do when something explodes above their heads.

Another question to Gavryliuk, displeased by the total corruption in civil life. Grenades and ammunition, which he and his friends grabbed just in case that is difficult to predict, isn’t it theft? And the money they paid for “erotic massage” was raised from diesel oil stolen from the military machinery before demobilization, was it done without problems and unclean senses too?

These questions are more than enough. Grydin depicted a morally ambiguous situation. The author doesn’t give straight valuations, apparently, he doesn’t recommend a reader to condemn or justify someone. In the space of fiction, it is not so important whether the described events have any real context and on whose experience it’s based. It is important whether such an event is true and appropriate in the conditions of the suggested tale. Gavryliuk’s suicide is such an event, it’s true. A poor, unconsoled person comes out on his last battle. Who is the rival? – He, himself. Some very uncomfortable division of forces falls on this epic Last Battle when victory over evil means only – to die together with evil. We can speak facts: a person returns from the front but doesn’t return from the war. Actually no, for this character, the war was only the way to postpone his death.

The structure of the text can be easily described through the most frequently used quote: “Suddenly remembered”. Going home by train, he argues with passengers who didn’t smell the gunpowder. Then he will apologize, because the elderly couple went to the hospital to his son, who was shot by his drunk fellow, and they, who honestly served in the army, were taken for “avatars”. He goes on the bus where they didn’t want to let him inside with a soldier certificate. He argues in the military department, in banks where he wasn’t respected to a certain extent, he smokes on the balcony after having another quarrel with his wife – and “suddenly remembers”. And a comrade’s story, or an adventure on the frontline, or a memory of a perished friend immediately emerges here. Yes, a traumatic consciousness experiences everything painful in the states of flashbacks, it might have been a very successful narrative course. But it failed. Linear detailed memories don’t pretend to be PTSD flashbacks, it’s just the easiest way to give us some sort of picture of Gavryliuk’s military past, which would be otherwise vague for us. Monotonous story structure isn’t helping.

But let’s return to the old ladies under the porch at the very beginning of “Stranger”. The tale opens with the scene of an explosion which is watched by the two ladies who assume that a perpetrator might be either a local drunkard or a mad ex-soldier (“equally” asocial element, we suppose). Sirens are sounding. Then Gavryliuk’s story which ends up with this explosion begins. Basically, the whole Gavryliuk’s story which was told is also a memory, a flashback like those which he himself experiences. The question: whose memory this flashback is?

Before death, Gavryliuk remembers his gone grandma who raised him. This is she who will wait for him “on the other side”. So, let’s fix the standard situation: we are shown an example of perfect parental love, which saves from the transformation of “own” to “someone else’s”. Next to the gone grandma, there will be perished comrades. Gavryliuk will tell plenty of these heartbreaking and terrible stories. The protagonists of his stories will be predominantly younger than him men. And here you are given a standard situation of unrealized parenthood. There is one character in this story for whom two situations coincide – the eldest son of Gavryliuk. This is his story. Now it will be already his traumatic memory – the alienation of his father and his suicide. Someone needs to deal with the consequences of the actions of foolish and intelligent parents – it must be children.

It is the tale about how your traumatic experience destroys someone near you. You don’t need fantasies about the Stranger, everyone here is Our Own, everyone is connected.

The conflict with the eldest son begins not with the fight during the breakfast, it begins earlier. At the moment when Gavryliuk gets home where he is not expected back (he didn’t warn!), he hears that behind the closed door someone is making love. He is sure: his wife betrays him. Overwhelmed with adrenalin, he prepares for a serious fight. But it turns out to be his son with his girlfriend who was frightened by the invasion of mad Gavryliuk. Son – we are very clearly shown – pretending to be part of the men’s group, which Gavriluk mentions and he himself belongs to. Toxic masculinity, which is depicted in Grydin’s glorious characters (and this is not a compliment), finally becomes relevant in the “Stranger”.

One of the first fragments of the tale – the scene with a “dude”. Gavryliuk – the second week of serving. Sniper Genka gladly notices a “Chechen-Kadyrov” and takes aim. Gavryliuk doesn’t understand his joyful excitement yet. The lieutenant is also satisfied, he orders two of the newcomers to get a “dude”. The comrades cover the with shootings, Gavryliuk crawls to the body, on his way he finds an “unfinished separatist” whom he kills by cutting his throat with a knife. The aim of this venture – money. “Kadyrov” dudes always have money with them. This one had three thousand dollars which were fairly divided between the sniper, soldiers and the lieutenant. And once more: that scene looks overly true to be make-believe. But in the space of fiction, it doesn’t matter to us whether the events actually happened. In the given conditions of this particular tale and this particular artistic world, the described event is true, terribly true and adequate to the “Stranger”.

This is the only piece of story where Grydin uses the word “fairly”. Further and often-often this word will be there only in such a form – “unfair”. “Do we divide honestly or fairly?” The question sounds before the money is divided. This is a joke, yes, a joke, but only not funny. In Grydin’s world, only this way is possible – either honestly or fairly.

Before death, Gavryliuk, totally drunk, sees Alaska who was torn off the head by an explosion. He reports that justice exists and God creates the battalion of all men who perished. He calls to join them. Tellingly, Gavryliuk refuses at first. Later, he commits suicide already without any kind of invocation and with the futile hope that he will be met by Alaska on that side. This also a variant of “honestly or fairly”. “Stanger” means dishonest but fair.

Hanna Uliura

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