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In the midst of the war against Ukraine: Poetically written with a seemingly light pen, Serhij Zhadan’s works strike right to the heart

Why Serhij Zhadan?

In the preface to his poetry collection “Antenna” Serhij Zhadan writes “The constant desire to share one’s enthusiasm, it is what forces you to search for words, to rearrange them, to plunder words like birds’ nests, to shake them, to turn them upside down.”

We’ve bought many books by winners of the most prestigious literary awards, curious to see who top-notch juries have placed first as a worthy winner.

Some of the books we put aside in disappointment after a few pages, some we continued to struggle through, then gave up and gave the highly decorated book away, hoping that another reader might appreciate it.

With Serhij Zhadan it is different. The Ukrainian photo artist Kirill Golovchenko had brought Serhij Zhadan to our attention. The proceeds of his benefit exhibition will go as a donation to Serhij Zhadan’s aid organization in Ukraine.

We have read four works by Serhij Zhadan and are thrilled.

The casual power of his words, the poetry, his ability to express emotion and draw the reader into the stories and not let go, we haven’t read like this in a very long time. A big thanks to the obviously excellent translators of his works at Suhrkamp Verlag.

If you create only one novel: Boarding School by Serhij Zhadan

If your time is so limited that you manage to read only one novel by Serhij Zhadan, we recommend the book: Internat.

Internat was published in 2017 and is about the war against Ukraine, which began in the eastern parts of the country back in 2014 and which most of us simply ignored. Unfortunately, the novel has lost none of its topicality. On the contrary.

The teacher Pasha believes he can stay out of it. He is not interested in politics, he is not on any side, he just wants to do his job as a teacher well and teach his students history and the Ukrainian language. Why should he be attacked? Why should he take a stand?

Until the moment when the boarding school where his nephew is staying is suddenly located in the contested area. He decides to bring his nephew home from the war zone and suddenly finds himself in the middle of a war he thought would not affect him.

Serhij Zhadan lets us run along. From the small railroad guard’s cottage where the teacher lives with his father to the nearest train station where people have sought shelter from explosions and executions and from which no train has left for safety for a long time.

Every meter can mean danger, every soldier can be friend or foe, it is difficult for Pasha to tell the uniforms and insignia apart. Every wrong movement, the adjusting of the glasses can be interpreted as intellectual arrogance or helplessness and mean the end.

He meets a cab driver who chases along overgrown dirt roads like a kamikaze, convinced that they are not yet mined.

He joins the former stationmaster who, for a fee, takes a small troop across rivers, thorn-covered slopes, a little closer to his destination, the boarding school. Along with a grandfather trying to get his granddaughter to safety, a state employee who didn’t have time to change her high-heeled shoes before fleeing, a woman trying to save her silver in her backpack, and a teenager dragging an empty rolling suitcase across stubble fields.

Everyone distrusts everyone. Everyone takes it upon themselves: No pity for anyone. And yet you take care of your grandfather, who falls ill while on the run, and you search for a doctor for him in bombed-out canyons of houses and in great fear of the next tank turning the corner.

Since February 24, 2022, we have received many testimonies and diaries of people in Ukraine. But it is the great literary language of Serhij Zhadan that goes deeper, that makes us feel the fear of the teacher Pasha in the three days in which he is on the way to his nephew’s boarding school.

On every page of the novel Boarding School, we wonder how long we could survive in this war?

If your time is not enough even to read a novel, then give away boarding school. To everyone who has been lucky enough to know the war only from the daily news so far. In contrast to the works of Herta Müller, for example, which leave hardly a glimmer of hope, Serhij Zhadan’s work speaks of a great comforting humanity, despite everything.

Why I am not on the net by Serhij Zhadan

This volume contains poems and stories by Serhij Zhadan, describing experiences on his travels to the eastern Ukrainian war zones. The poems are written with a lightness that makes the reading breathless.

You literally chase across the pages and are sad to have suddenly reached the end of the book.

Serhij Zhadan succeeds in doing what has become a popular phrase among many politicians: To be close to the people, to put it into words. His words are always unpathetic, almost casual but never banal. This is precisely what makes them exciting and rare in the literary world.

For those who only manage to glance at a book briefly in the late evening before sleep overtakes them, we recommend this volume.

Mesopotamia by Serhij Zhadan

The book paints a portrait of the city of Kharkiv, where Serhiy Zhadan, who was born in 1974 in Strobilsk, in the Lunhansk region, lives.

Similar to the former Mesopotamia, the Mesopotamian land, which due to its fertility always aroused the ambition of different rulers and in which the most diverse ethnic groups lived together, Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, is located on two large rivers.

In the novel, Kharkiv is a place of love and betrayal, of despair and hope, where everyone is infinitely tired of war and many shattered dreams.

It’s chaotic, it’s loud, and you adhere to the customs you believe should be observed at weddings and funerals, find comfort in togetherness over a few hours, and stumble back to reality.

Serhij Zhadan describes all the weaknesses and dreams of his characters with so much insight into human nature and humor that you can’t help but find yourself in the whirlpool of life with them for the duration of the novel, before you emerge astonished back into your own reality after the last page.

See Also

Serhij Zhadan antenna

If Franz Schubert were looking for texts to compose his Winterreise today, he would set Serhij Zhadan’s poems to music.

Serhij Zhadan’s grief over the death of his father can be read in these poems and lyrics, and anyone who has suffered such a loss will find themselves in the poems.

And again, it is the war we encounter in this volume that is present like a somber leitmotif, making people observe almost in disbelief that it is nevertheless summer, that students are falling in love, and that winter is once again covering the landscape with snow.

Poet and musician

Serhij Zhadan is not only an excellent writer but also for 20 years the frontman of a band that is currently playing for soldiers, in subway stations and many other places in Ukraine. 3Sat Kulturzeitrecently interviewed Serhij Zhadan at a concert in Frankfurt am Main.

Sunday, October 23, 2022, 10:45 a.m. ARD

The presentation of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade will take place on October 23, 2022, traditionally in Frankfurt’s Paulskirche and will be broadcast live on ARD from 10:45 am.

Around this date, the feuilletons will certainly report extensively on this exceptional writer. As a GloriousMe reader, you may have long since read one or more of his books by then.

Decision in Kiev

In addition, if you would like to classify the history of Ukraine and get a feel for how Ukraine became the country it is today, then we finally recommend the book Decision in Kiev by historian Karl Schlögel.

Then you will suddenly realize why the names of Ukrainian cities such as Kyiv, Odessa, Kharkiv, Lviv, Cernivtsi and others are so familiar to us. We already know them from the darkest times of German history. Their names were often mentioned in the newsreels of the time.

The subtitle of the book is Ukrainian Lessons.

Portrait Serhij Zhadan © Oleksandr Rupeta,
Alamy stock photo

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