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The Language of War by Oleksandr Mykhed review – what role for the artist in times of catastrophe?

The Language of War by Oleksandr Mykhed review – what role for the artist in times of catastrophe?

For four years, the Ukrainian writer Oleksandr Mykhed lived in the town of Hostomel, not far from Kyiv. Weekends were idyllic. He and his wife, Olena, would have brunch in a cafe, walk their dog, Lisa, in the forest, and eat prawn curry for dinner. Often, Mykhed started to clean the flat and got distracted. He would pick a book from his library and read a dozen or so random pages. Or he browsed their collection of Ukrainian art.

This agreeable existence came to a halt on 24 February 2022, when Moscow launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine. The couple lived close to Hostomel’s airport. Russian paratroopers tried to seize its runway. Mykhed’s parents – professors of literature – were living down the road in the neighbouring city of Bucha. They watched from their balcony as enemy helicopters clattered above them, an imperious scene that could have come from Apocalypse Now.

The same evening, Mykhed and his wife fled their home. Like millions of Ukrainians, they went west: in their case, to the city of Chernivtsi. Days later, a Russian shell hit their building. Five people from his complex died. The writer’s parents spent nearly three weeks hiding in a basement. They escaped with only their cat. Above ground, Russian soldiers went from house to house, murdering civilians, raping women and gunning down families in cars. The Russians burned some bodies. Others they dumped in the street.

Mykhed’s book, The Language of War, covers the first 13 months of Russia’s full-scale military onslaught. It is a brilliant and fury-filled account of how everything changed. The war entirely “nullified” his old happy existence and upended the lives of friends and loved ones, he records. It robbed him of his past. “I’m afraid to look at the photos on my phone. I can’t look at the images any more. Every warm memory of Bucha and Hostomel is destroyed,” he writes.

The conflict also changed the meaning of words. Mykhed grapples with the question of language and its relationship with reality. How can writerly descriptions encompass the horrors of Mariupol, and the complicity of average Russians in Putin’s “everyday, routine, plain, dirty genocide”? What, he wonders, is the role of an artist in times of catastrophe? His task, he decides, is to document Moscow’s many crimes and to “bear witness to their evil”. And to survive.

With missiles falling on Ukrainian cities, language changes purpose. It becomes direct and grimly practical. He cites the example of doctors who write the time a tourniquet is applied on the forehead of wounded soldiers. Likewise, parents who ink names and addresses on the backs of small children in marker pen, in case they or their kids are killed. Servicemen swap messages. They use + or ++ signs to indicate they are alive. “One small symbol that means life,” Mykhed explains.

The war has influenced Ukraine’s literary culture as well. Mykhed finds it hard to read, especially novels. “I don’t believe in the possibility of escaping into a fictional world when the reality of your very life is ablaze,” he says. Poets have given up on experimentation. Instead, their work has become “functional and ritualistic”. Verse has gone back to its “magical origins”, as a prayer, a “lament for the dead” and a “general curse on the enemy”. Mykhed’s own book is a mixture of genres, with diary entries, news reports and chapter-length interviews.

A Russian missile strikes Kyiv, January 2024View image in fullscreen

Running through it is a profound hatred of Russia. He is scathing about well-meaning organisers of book festivals who platform Ukrainian and Russian authors together, in order to promote “peace”. Or who call for a boycott of Putin but not Pushkin. In his view, Russian culture is an “integral part of a repressive imperial machine”. It should be spurned and sanctioned, he argues, adding: “All Russians are guilty.” That includes Moscow intellectuals who failed to stop Putin and allowed the rise of his homicidal state.

Now 36 years old, Mykhed is a serving member of Ukraine’s armed forces. He joined up soon after the invasion. Previously, he had never held a weapon. His fellow recruits include long-distance truck drivers, an IT guy, doctoral scientists and veterans of Russia’s shadow war in the Donbas, which began in 2014. Mykhed sleeps in barracks and learns how to handle a machine gun. He provides a pithy summary of successful battlefield tactics: “Get them fucked up and get the fuck out of there.”

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Mykhed went back to Hostomel four months after he left. Russian troops had trashed his parents’ apartment. They tossed books from the shelves and chucked possessions on the floor. He clears out food sitting in the fridge. “You don’t want to smell that,” he points out. His own place is ruined, too. Looters have stolen his favourite Air Jordan sneakers and several bottles of whisky, some of them already half-drunk; red brick dust covers his belongings.

The Language of War is an important book and a painful piece of history, published as Russia advances once again. A Ukrainian victory seems a long way off. Mykhed acknowledges it is unclear when the fighting will end. He imagines himself walking between fields under “high skies” and “screaming from pain”, for the “fallen… maimed, wrecked and missing”. He ends with an ambivalent phrase, suitable for our troubled present: “I want to forget it all. I want to never forget”.

  • The Language of War by Oleksandr Mykhed is published by Allen Lane (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: theguardian.com