Diary of an Invasion by Andrey Kurkov review – Ukrainian life turned upside down | Biography and notes

aYoung Andrei Kurkov traveled around the Soviet Union—in trains, river boats, and in trucks—and gave interviews to former Soviet bureaucrats. He had read a copy of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s banned book The Gulag Archipelago and wanted to know more about the Gulag himself. One of the judges he met had the power to sign 3,000 death warrants for people who had been sentenced without trial. This experience was a lesson for Kurkov about the suppression of memory and truth: members of his family endured forced deportations, starvation, and decades in the camps, but such traumas were never discussed. For Kurkov – who is Arabic-speaking and Russian but has long been stationed in Ukraine – telling the truth has been important ever since.

Best known for novels such as Death and the Penguin and Gray Bees. But after the Maidan protests and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, he put a set of letters into a book called Ukraine’s Memoirs. And now he’s done the same about the Russian invasion this year, with journal entries lasting through mid-July. The conclusion tells us to expect more; He still keeps a diary, sometimes in disbelief (“This new Ukrainian reality is far beyond my writer’s imagination”), sometimes in dismay (“Will I ever be able to write about war?”), and sometimes with a walkable aphorism about the samurai in his head (“If You sat on the riverbank for a very long time, then sooner or later the corpse of your enemy will float before you downstream”).

The diary began last December, two months before the war began, and includes seemingly unrelated elements: power outages, Pushkin, Covid, drunk driving, bookstores, school lunches, and whether Ukrainian is sexier than Russian. . But below there is a constant fear of imminent conflict. It’s not as if the war didn’t really happen: Korkov’s 2018 novel Gray Biz, set in the region between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists, served as a reminder of the hostilities taking place in the east. And he knows that what is to come will be greater and worse, with “the horror that has no place in contemporary life.”

He was at his home in Kyiv when the first missiles fell, before driving with a snail’s pace to the village where he had a house (“the front was everywhere”) and from there, for another 22 hours, to the safe haven of Transcarpathia. He made occasional trips across the western border in the following weeks but not for long: “I stay and will continue to write to you until you know how Ukraine lives during war.” The “you” he addresses are readers in the West, and he hopes their governments will take his country’s side. He blames Germany for its reluctance to provide assistance, and Greece for its prevarication. President Zelensky was praised but not cajoled for his speeches. Boris Johnson is not mentioned.

Kurkov’s stance on the war, as “Putin’s last chance of getting old to realize his dream of re-establishing the Soviet Union,” is familiar. So, is his response to the claim that Ukraine is anti-Russian and anti-Semitic: If it was, why would a Russian-speaking Jew be elected its president with 73% of the vote? What the book offers and international press reports cannot be surprising details: Ukrainian farmers sow seeds – rape, buckwheat, rye – despite the dangers of Russian bombing and landmines; An 85-year-old woman takes her cock with her when she is evacuated and the cock awakens from her exhausted companions at 4 am; Thousands of people buy tickets to a zoo that they can’t visit because they want to feed the animals; Clips about dentistry, oil scams, dolphins, and “little grave days,” when people head to their loved ones’ resting places. War is an ugly tumor, with countless civilian and military deaths every day. But it also provides opportunities: “You can learn to bake basca [sweet bread] in a damaged stove. You can get a tattoo for the first time in your life at the age of 80. You can start learning Hungarian or Polish.”

Kurkov relies on social media posts, phone calls, and conversations at the local sauna. He’s the least preoccupied commentator himself, but personal stuff seeps into him. He says he won’t cry, but sometimes he’s in great shape and loses his sense of humor. He worries about friends and feels he has no time to waste — “You walk too fast,” his Suri-born wife complains on her daily walk. He wonders if he will return to writing novels. “War and books are incompatible,” he decided: bookstores closed and paper shortages hit the publishing industry. Even filming the Gray Biz, in the Donbass, has to stop. Even worse, fresh water is not available in supermarkets, which means he can’t spend his evening at a G&T.

His voice was gentle but also impassioned, no more than when he denounced Putin’s efforts to erase Ukrainian culture and history. He says Ukraine “will either be free, independent and European, or it will not exist at all.” That is why the war must be fought without giving up land. He remains quietly hoping to win it.

Andrei Kurkov’s Diary of an Invasion is published by Mountain Leopard (£16.99). To support Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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