My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a hell of book, a first hand account of an 18 year old conscript in the Chechen war of 1996, torn from his mother’s apron strings and brutalised beyond belief by both the training and the fighting. The most telling effect of the horror is that Babchenko chooses to return to the battlefield as a contract soldier to fight in the second conflict, not because he believes in the war but because it has become part of him and he cannot stay away. Later, still, he goes back as a journalist and still fails to make any sense of it. “Maybe war is the strongest narcotic in the world.”
I urge that this work should become a classic. Not only does it document one of the most horrific and under-reported conflicts of our time, but its unsentimental, visceral prose simultaneously spans the great Russian tradition of Solzhenitsyn‘s Ivan Denisovich and the burning reportage of Herr’s Dispatches in a shrapnel burst of imagery that is also evocative of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. On the jacket, it is rightly ranked with Catch 22 and All Quiet on the Western Front.
Not originally intending to write a book but compelled to somehow purge and process his experiences on the page, Arkady Babechenko pieces together fragments of memory into three or four long chapters covering specific campaigns, interspersed with shorter vignettes. There is not strong sense of an unfolding chronology and there are wide gaps, alluded to, where there is a sense that whatever lies in them is too agonising to express; the author’s stint in a penal battalion and loss of a comrade called Igor may have been the most awful scenes of all if they were written with the same unflinching illumination as some of the other memories. Some of the scenes, however, will haunt the reader like a nightmare.
The first section of the book contains accounts of the first conflict, and Babchenko’s initiation into the senseless violence and hatred of the conflict by the fists and boots of other soldiers in the barracks, long before he comes under fire from the Chechens.
The second section documents some of his experiences in the second war, having completed a law degree and volunteering to go back into a place that the reader, by then, would rather not be reminded of in spite of being compelled to carry on turning the pages. Babchenko describes real people and real events with only minimal adaptations to accommodate to the style of literary fiction and keep things coherent for the reader.
In the final section, having returned to “normal” life and working as a journalist, the author returns to the same landing strip at Mozdok where he had arrived as a recruit some seven years earlier. He finds very little has changed in the atmosphere of the place and in the tormented eyes of the next generation of soldiers, even though the war is essentially “over”.There is an attempt to explain the brutality of the daily beatings at the barracks that no soldier escapes,”a male collective in a confined space inevitably assumes a prison’s model of existence.” However, he cannot find an explanation for the insanity maintains ascendancy in the region, “still they send huge bundles of rifle rounds to Grozny, and the constant gnashing of teeth is eased with litres of vodka, and there is a non stop supply of torn human flesh to the hospitals. Fear and hatred still rule this land.”
A phenomenal and impassable gulf will separate most readers from the author, “You can’t explain what war is to someone who has never been there, just as you can’t explain green to a blind person…” but I found the prose insidious enough to give me at least one sleepless night with broken dreams of lying in frozen trenches and there will ever more be a great deal more flesh and blood behind those sanitised newsreel clips on television.