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Haunted by fallen soldiers in the dead of night: war literature on loss

Published on Dec 21, 2023

Ukrainian article of the week published in the 13th edition of the "What about Ukraine" newsletter on January 4th, 2024. The article was written by Hanna Uliura for Chytomo and was translated for n-ost by Tetiana Evloeva.

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War survivors have to deal with the task of glorifying their heroes and mourning their dead. Yes, that’s one task, not two.
How can war literature approach this feeling of loss?

Faces of the fallen brethren

It’s been four months since Oleksandr returned from the frontline. He lives in Odesa, working hard on construction sites. He’s pouring concrete for an office block on the site of a former cemetery. He works in his military uniform and tattered combat boots. He also resorts to binge drinking and battering his wife, confessing to her: “I just want to forget.” He falls asleep, hoping not to wake up the next morning. His dreams (or are they dreams?) are visited by the faces of his five fallen brethren. Day by day, men whom he joined in combat and whose deaths he witnessed, come to haunt him, waiting.

Among the living, he stays silent on his part in the war in eastern Ukraine, and, among the dead, his visitors also keep their silence. “They just keep silent, and I have no idea how to respond to that,” he confesses.

He sees the oblivion which he craves while carelessly exhuming the long-forgotten graves and pouring concrete for some new buildings in their place. At the same time, his dead compatriots won’t give Oleksandr any peace, and follow him in their unearthly silence. He needs oblivion to keep a grasp of sanity, while the dead are supplanting the living, and the faces of the man’s colleagues and family fade away, superimposed by the clear visions of his brothers-in-arms’ faces. These are entirely different phenomena that his fallen brethren also never speak about. They all died at the same moment, when the house where they sheltered was hit by an artillery shell. Two people survived, including Oleksandr. We know nothing of the second survivor, as there’s nobody to either remember or forget them.

Above is the retelling of one of the most impressive prose pieces written by a war veteran. The story is called ‘The Monolith’, printed by DIPA Publishers. Its author, Valerii Puzik, has a special sensitivity required for texts commemorating those who lost their lives to the war, and reflecting upon the limitations of such commemoration.

I asked Valerii’s opinion on how the fallen should be depicted in writing.

“Writing about the fallen is hard, but it’s also necessary,” he said. “Here, top-notch honesty is crucial, primarily out of respect for someone no longer with us. There shouldn’t be any excessive heroism and pathos. This is where memoirs, essays and documentary prose come in handy. When I write something (or read someone’s writing) depicting real people, it is crucial to me to be able to see this person’s depiction and the circumstances they were in, as well as the dynamics of those circumstances developing over time. In texts like these, falseness rings like a clear bell, so honesty is key.”

From piety to fame

Memory as a cultural phenomenon rather than individual recollection is centred on remembering the dead. Honouring our dead is a pro forma of any remembrance. Everything we do culture-wise is aimed at preserving the memory of those who are no longer with us.

Researchers of commemorative practices say that the means of remembering our dead can be roughly divided into two groups: piety and fame.

We must have piety when remembering our kin whose life story and legacy we have to pass on to our descendants, safeguarding its continuity through the bloodline. That’s the reason why the grief over killed children strikes so many chords in war-related writings: the generation that was meant to pass on our memory is murdered, and with them, the generation of their parents also perishes, culture-wise.

Fame is a kind of perpetuation or self-perpetuation. This is how we remember those who earned our respect and whose stories we will pass on, out of respect for the dead person, despite being under no obligation to do so. Fame is premised on one’s outstanding deeds and the others’ ability to retell this story, in order to commit it to the memory of generations to come. In war literature, the death of the Hero strengthens the community instead of weakening it, as that Hero becomes its consolidating symbol.

While fame has to be earned, piety is granted by definition.

War literature mourning the fallen and honouring the heroes has to walk the fine line between fame and piety. Traditionally, war writings immortalised war heroes. They stated that victory, no matter the cost, was a triumphant occasion. Over the past century, however, authors writing about the war mourn its victims, because it is the cost that matters — perhaps because we no longer view wars as just a triumph of the victors.

In today’s era of Valerii Puzik, honesty, unpretentiousness, documentation and accuracy are what matters. As for the stages of transition from piety to fame in the literature contemplating the losses in war — let us now examine them.

Delayed grief: leaving the dead out of the frame

Artem Chekh and Beata Kurkul co-authored a comic book called ‘Na Velykii Zemli’ (Ukr. ‘In The Mainland’, Vydavnytstvo Publishers), about a wounded soldier sent to the mainland to recuperate. This is a piece immensely loaded with deep meanings, despite having only a dozen panels. In the opening scene, paramedics are recovering two unresponsive soldiers from the rubble. While one soldier dies in their arms, the second, Andrii, survives. One paramedic’s words, “Bro is passing away,” opens this work of literature. We do not see the characters from this scene anywhere else in the comic book, and the dead body isn’t even in the frame — we later see him alive, a moment before his death, but never do we see his dead body. Those two men, however — the one who passed away and the one who was saved — are the two main characters in this piece. Death itself is left out of the frame. There’s no need to shock a morally sound society with crude realism.

Andrii struggles with adapting to a peaceful life. He’s trying to be useful to his community and even mobilises his brothers-in-arms in efforts to restore an abandoned recreation camp. At the same time, those who survived combat are unable to live in the deep hinterland, and time and again, Andrii receives news of yet another friend committing suicide.

This book doesn’t use the phenomenon of delayed death in combat, where everyone is actually killed in action, but some of these soldiers are not yet aware of their untimely death. Instead, it portrays delayed grief, where the dead bodies of fallen servicemen are “removed from the frame” in the hope that others will have the time to mourn them when the war is over.

A similar effect of delayed grief can be found in Ukrainian books about the war (and not just the war). Pavlo Derevianko’s fantasy trilogy ‘Teneta Viyny’ (Ukr. ‘The Snare of War’, Dim Khymer Publishers) retells the stories of five brethren in arms who are also enchanters, who go through a war that torments their lives and their psyche, eventually killing most of them. The trilogy is a tribute to the Ukrainian defenders. While victims may not be explicitly described in the books as characters, their influence on the books’ content is pivotal.

Every book written after Illovaisk, Volnovakha, Mariupol and Bucha has to be a testament to our respect for the fallen and murdered. Every book published during the war (even those that tell nothing about the actual war) mourns the loss of life of those who we are planning to lament after the war is over.

Meanwhile, this approach lifts the limitations of criteria that we usually use to criticise works of literature. After all, how do you criticise and measure delayed suffering? I have no answer to this question. Do you? Take, for instance, Oleksandra Ivaniuk’s ‘Amor[t]e’ (Vydavnytstvo21 Publishers). This novel is a retelling of the true story of Francesca, an Italian journalist, and Yurii, her teacher from Donetsk, Ukraine. Together they take part in Euromaidan and later find themselves amid the raging war. The novel was written in cooperation with Francesca Leonardi and with her approval, and tells the story of Yurii Matushchak, who joined the Dnipro–1 Battalion as a volunteer and was killed in action near Ilovaisk. Nobody will judge this book on its artistic value, nor will anyone ever read it as some romance novel, for it is a recollection of war.

Every work of literature commemorating those killed becomes a reflection of war, not its actor. Unlike the victims, its privilege is to survive.

Remembering what never happened

In April 2023, a video of Russians torturing and executing a Ukrainian POW went viral. Among those who reacted was Vasylisa Trofymovych (Mazurchuk), who wrote a harsh post criticising the soldier who failed to die with dignity, and chose instead to beg for mercy — in Russian!. He failed to bravely face his executors, with his head held high, exclaim “Glory to Ukraine”, and die with dignity, like Mel Gibson’s Scottish revolutionary William Wallace in the 1995 film ‘Braveheart’, who screams ‘Freedom’ under torture, and dies rather than giving in to the English overlords. That post resonated with a lot of people. Vasylisa wrote it as a former military servicewoman and a current military wife forced to flee the country to save their child, and — which is crucial in terms of this article — as a writer.

The foreword to Ms Trofymovych’s first collection of veteran memoirs, ‘Liubov na Liniyi Vohniu’ (Ukr. ‘Love on the Firing Line’, Folio Publishers) shows the war isn’t just black-and-white and that, despite always being ready to die, a woman at war can find her true love on the firing line, that she is waiting to find her Hero — which contains the same message as the post about the tortured POW.

This literal tradition is well-known. It comes from hagiography, because that’s how the stories of martyrs for their faith were written. Later, that tradition was adopted by the Soviets, who, year after year, produced numerous novels and short stories about the heroes of the “Great Patriotic War”, including countless bulky tomes on hero pioneer scouts, where someone’s sole purpose in life was to suffer and then die in dignity, and only in this death find their absolution. This is a shining example of the very pretentious, pompous heroisation that Valerii Puzik spoke about.

In October 2022, one publisher trumpeted the first Ukrainian novel about the tragedy of Bucha. KSD Publishers advertised that Daryna Hnatko had written a “Lament novel” called ‘Bucha, a captivity story’, which was “the depiction of feeling that can only manifest itself in a war.” Its main character, the daughter of a Kyiv businessman who doesn’t identify with Ukraine and has no desire to live in the country, finds herself under military occupation in Bucha, and after all she went through, she volunteers to join the army. Hnatko is known as a melodrama writer consistently using the tragic pages of Ukraine’s recent history (like Soviet collectivisation, the Holodomor and the Holocaust) as the backdrop for her works. Obviously, Bucha was supposed to become yet another such setting for a familiar story that depicts a person full of virtues, who suffers a lot, but saves herself. After a public outcry, the publisher suspended this project. The list of accusations included the writer’s lack of documentary groundwork and any evidence of the survivor’s experience, her speculation on a sensitive subject, and whether melodrama is an inappropriate genre for commemorating the dead. The last argument outweighed all the others.

Melodramatic imagination is extremely manipulative, as it deals with extremely strong emotions. Sometimes those emotions obscure the melodrama’s key message that every suffering has its purpose and that someone who has their fair share of suffering will be rewarded, and become a better person and a member of the community. Writing melodramas on war is equivalent to exploiting the war itself and the carnage it brings, so the readership reacts to such manipulation, mostly on an intuitive level.

One must admit that cases like Daryna Hnatko’s novel are a natural way for literature to try to comprehend war and genocide. After all, the already established genre of writing on the Holocaust, with its toolkit of literature clichés, is there for a reason. Storyline clichés enfeeble the reader’s emotional and intellectual immersion in the topic. The Jewish historian Yaffa Eliach coined a spot-on term for such a corrupt approach to documenting other people’s suffering: the Shoah business, (which referred to the “merchandising” of mass murder through feel-good stories). While we didn’t invent that approach, we sure pitched in. The first novel exploiting the tragedy of the Heavenly Hundred was published as early as in April 2014, followed by the first melodrama on the ATO in September 2014. The first “lament novel” with the occupied Kyiv region as its backdrop was published in June 2022.

Shakespeare in Borodianka

One may assume that writing about losses in war is a tough hill to climb, both ethically and technically. After all, most people reading about wars have never experienced war firsthand, therefore the writers have to appeal to the readers’ imagination regarding an armed conflict.

At the end of 2022, Volodymyr Rafeienko published his play ‘Mobilni Khvyli Buttia’ (‘Mobile Waves of Being’, Anetta Antonenko Publishers). This work describes life under military occupation in the Kyiv region of early spring 2022, and is based on real stories of people who either survived or were killed in a small hamlet between Bucha and Borodianka. Its tagline, ‘Verbum Caro Factum Est’, is a Latinised quote from John 1:14 meaning “the Word was made flesh” demonstrating a pattern of real stories transforming into literature, so that this literature could in turn become a document. Yet besides Bucha and Borodianka, the play has another plotline of a dead bride, which uses both Shakespeare’s story of Ophelia from Hamlet and Edgar Allan Poe’s poem ‘The Raven’ (which, on the surface, feels out of place).

So why does Shakespeare get to tell the story of Borodianka? Because writing about mass carnage (as well as individual losses) at war is as heartbreaking as reading about it, and references to the literary tradition somehow ease that pressure. By comparing the genocide in Mariupol with the siege of Troy, not only are we emphasising the scale of the modern tragedy, but also putting a three-thousand year old work of classical literature as a buffer between ourselves and the carnage nearby.

Novels on present-day, 21st century wars, which are translated into English and become bestsellers, most often follow classical formulas. The primary reason why they gain popularity is that the readers know how to read these kinds of books. To them, both Baghdad and Troy are equally distant in time and space.

In his book ‘The Kite Runner’, Khaled Hosseini writes about the war in Afghanistan, telling the story of two boys of the same age, where one of them gets killed and the other survives by managing to escape, and how both of them are victims. At the same time, ‘The Kite Runner’ retells the story of Rostam and Sohrab from the 10th-century Persian epic ‘Shahnameh’, which describes a father accidentally killing his son on the battlefield.

Depicting the same war, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya retells the story of the ancient Greek drama Antigone in his novel ‘The Watch’. In the plot, a NATO night watch team is approached by an Afghan woman asking them to return the body of her brother, who was killed in the attempt to take over the military base, for his burial.

Writing on the war in Syria, Khaled Khalifa in his novel ‘Death is Hard Work’ revisits William Faulkner’s 1930 southern Gothic novel ‘As I Lay Dying’. Two brothers and a sister, acting on their father’s dying wish, want to bury him in their ancestral village. That route is supposed to be a two-hour drive. However, with the country being a warzone, it takes them three days of travel — through numerous roadblocks, territories controlled by different armies, under fire, and with the ever-present danger of getting killed. Added to the mix is that their father is one of the rebel leaders, and you get the story.

This is also true in Ukraine. Serhiy Zhadan writes his novel ‘Internat’ (Ukr. ‘Orphanage’, Meridian Czernowitz Publishers) on the battles of Debaltseve, rendering the narratives of the Book of Jeremiah, while Olena Stiazhkina writes her ‘Movoiu Boha’ (Ukr. ‘In the Language of God’, Dukh I Litera Publishers) describing the military occupation of Donetsk through re-telling the story of the collapse of Assyria.

The book's portrayal of war is based on wars described in other books.

Using intertextuality in books on war losses is a way of coming to terms with deaths at war. This is a form of mourning, by re-telling other people’s stories with other people’s words, translating the real death to a symbolic level. This is how cultural memory works, transcending from a person to a symbol.

Depicting child victims of war: a note of caution

Danylo ‘Dania’ Didik is recognised as the People’s Hero of Ukraine (posthumously). You can hardly find anyone in Ukraine who isn’t familiar with his name. He was 15 when he was killed in a terrorist attack in Kharkiv. One can find references to Danylo’s biography in multiple short stories by Ruslan Horovyi. His book ‘Tysiacha I Odna Nich Viyny’ (Ukr. ‘One Thousand and One Nights of War’, TaTySho Publishers) is also dedicated to the hero. Serhiy Zhadan’s ‘Kraina Ditei’ (Ukr. ‘Children’s County’, which was turned into a song) also captures, reflects upon, and honours his death. In 2019, the Tak Pratsiuie Pam’iat (Ukr. ‘This is How Memory Works’) Project was launched, transforming poetry commemorating children who were killed in the war into songs. This is a great example of that tactful and sensitive commemoration.

Children dying at war is a topic that draws a powerful emotional response, so the writer who explores this subject has to show utmost caution and sensitivity. It is always a matter of the author’s moral aptitude and ethical responsibility.

In March 2022, there was a heated discussion among the children’s authors community prompted by an English-language edition ‘The War: The Children Who Will Never Get to Read Books’ by Mariia Serdiuk (My Bookshelf Publishing House). The book depicts the stories of 13 Ukrainian kids killed during the full-scale war. It’s a picture book, and those illustrations are eerily realistic, depicting children’s dead bodies, riddled with bullets and lying in pools of blood. The publication was presented as a crossover, aimed at both adults and kids. This created controversy.

Around the same time, another crossover, a Ukrainian-language book by Larysa Denysenko ‘Dity Povitrianykh Tryvoh” (Ukr. ‘Children of Air Raids Sirens’, Vydavnytstvo Publishers), was published. The book is composed of real stories of wartime Ukrainian kids (who share their first-person perspective), including kids who were killed, but returned to talk about their own deaths. Every chapter of Denysenko’s book is a documentary, telling the real story of a kid in this war. The book was widely accepted and received properly.

It’s not a matter of the personal status of the two writers (both are well-respected and talented), nor is it the matter of the time of publishing (both books were “premature”), and not even the target audience (the intended readership was outside Ukraine). So what is the difference in reaction to the two books? It’s the intended goal: one book aims at informing readers about this war, the other banks on shocking the readers, and possibly retraumatising them.

When books become memorials

We usually commemorate the fallen in special places called ‘memorials’. Those are museums, memorial complexes and burial sites. Lying in front of me are three books that in and of themselves have become memorials — that is, every one of them is not a medium for, but a place of commemorating the fallen.

One of those books is a collection of stories ‘Zhyty Ne Mozhna Pomerty’ (Ukr. ‘Alive cannot be dead’, The Old Lion Publishing House), Oleksandr Osadko’s posthumous edition (the author was killed in action near Krasnopillia). Another is the diaries of Volodymyr Vakulenko, who was killed in Izium, called ‘Ya peretvoriuius… Shodennyk Okupaciyi. Vybrani Virshi’ (Ukr. ‘I am transforming… Diary entries from occupation. Select Poems’, Vivat Publishers), prefaced by Viktoria Amelina who was killed during the bombing in Kramatorsk. The third is Andrii Hudyma’s ’69 Spetsiy’ (Ukr. ‘69 Spices’, The Old Lion Publishing House), published after the author was killed in action near Bakhmut. The last one is Ihor Mysiak’s debut novel ‘Zavod’ (Ukr. ‘Factory’, Tempora Publishers), which will forever remain the author’s only book.

Memorials can also look like books on the shelves — devoid of grandiloquence, and full of accuracy and honesty.