Review by Max Dunbar
‘I am not Ukrainian and I questioned whether it was my place to tell this story,’ Kalani Pickhart writes in the foreword to I Will Die in a Foreign Land. ‘As I spoke to Ukrainians and told them about the project, I was almost apologetic – I felt I needed to ask permission to write it.’
This is a familiar hesitation in the modern world where it is seen as mildly suspect to write about things you haven’t directly experienced – the imagination as an act of theft, somehow. But Ukrainian writers have known worse fates than cultural appropriation. Visiting the arts community in Kiev, Charlotte Higgins wrote that
colonisation has operated subtly, through a Soviet belittling of Ukrainian culture as essentially childish, a matter of drunken peasants in Cossack trousers. But it has also been pursued brutally and cruelly, by, for example, actively proscribing writing in Ukrainian as at times under the tsars; or through mass bloodshed, as when hundreds of Ukrainian writers and artists, known as the executed renaissance, were killed under Stalin in 1937.
Yet Pickhart can’t help that modern hesitation holding her back. Her novel of the Maidan protests centres around the monastery on Independence Square, where protestors regrouped from police assaults and stitched each other’s wounds. This book captures something of how it must have felt to live in this cathedral night after beseiged night. Memorable figures appear and disappear like shadows. Flickering light reveals curious rainbows and facets. I Will Die in a Foreign Land intersperses its narratives with news reports, folk songs, lists of Yanukovych’s rushed and ludicrous anti-assembly laws, names of the Heavenly Hundred and the dead of flight MH17.
The characters too are like cathedral busts or statues. Pickhart writes about them like somebody carrying an expensive china vase down a long, freshly-mopped corridor. Katya the doctor who treats the Maidan wounded, Misha the ex miner and Chernobyl refugee, Slava the fiery journalist – their lives are steeped in hardship and tragedy. They speak solemnly, think solemn thoughts, and drag trails of ghosts behind them. These people are not passive archetypes, they fall in love, fight for their lives, they are active participants in their own story. But still, you wonder: did no one ever crack a joke on the Maidan, or say something frivolous, or bitchy?
Perhaps this kind of nuance is overshadowed by the sheer immediacy of this novel. The Maidan was eight years ago but it still resonates. The demonstrations forced out Ukraine’s then leader, Victor Yanukovych, who fled office to seek asylum from the Russian dictator he’d so obviously dreamed of emulating. Russian comms suggested that Putin and his elite had never forgiven the Maidan protestors. Defence analysts claimed that an initial Russian aim in the 2022 Ukraine invasion was ‘to put individuals involved in the 2014 Revolution of Dignity (often referred to as the Maidan Revolution) on trial to be executed.’ I Will Die in a Foreign Land is about the past but it’s also about real life or death events, happening now.
An outstanding feature of this novel is Pickhart’s way of moving her characters, seamlessly, from the realm of self conscious fiction and internal monologues to the flat prose of reportage, still the way most people comprehend national or world events. In a frightening passage Slava’s lover Dascha is hunted in the street – ‘She crosses the courtyard, but before she gets to Shovkovychna she hears something, and walks faster.’ Then Dascha turns up in a missing person report. There is an old man at the Maidan, known affectionately as ‘The Captain’, who plays the piano for demonstrators. We learn that he is Alexandr Invanovich, career Soviet man, veteran of the army and the KGB. ‘Have you ever done anything, hoping to convince yourself of something?’ he asks his Czech lover.
We learn his name in one of Pickhart’s news reports – a item from the communist press, about Alexandr’s wedding to Nadezdha Vasilieva, who he met at the Bolshoi. The tone is elite gossip – knowing and self deprecating, but not quite too much – ‘I don’t want to take the credit… I suppose Sasha could also thank Mr Stravinsky,’ his sister says. But this feeling of happy complicity is broken by the last paragraph:
Miss Stepaneva Vasilieva and Mr Arkadyevich Ivanovich exchanged their vows among family and friends, toasting champagne and dancing into the night. A truly romantic and joyful evening was punctured by the words of council member, Elena Svetlana Antonina: ‘I wish you happiness and love. Complete happiness is impossible without complete labor for your country!’
Not so much a puncture as… a pistol shot in the middle of a concert. Pickhart’s ingenuity is not just in her imitation of the propagandist style, but to demonstrate how totalitarianism shatters the private subjective space which a marriage needs to flourish – and she does all this in a page and a half. How good was it that Lenin’s statues were pulled down.
It’s a feature of the novel as a whole. Pickhart’s writing is sometimes melodramatic, but it’s never verbose. The book is structured in short, intense chapters. Reading it is like drinking a bottle of something very rich and strong – delicious, but you can only really handle it in short gulps. Perhaps something passed around under the dome of St Michael’s.
The invasion of Ukraine inspired an enduring solidarity in Europe and America. It would be a great thing if the stories and histories of Ukraine entered our language as well. I Will Die in a Foreign Land is not just a fascinating work in itself but one that will open the gate for more.
Max blogs at maxdunbar.wordpress.com and tweets as @MaxDunbar1.
Kalani Pickhart, I Will Die in a Foreign Land, (Doubleday, 2022) 978-0857529305, 320 pp., hardback.