[New Directions; 2022]
Tr. from the Russian by Eugene Ostashevsky
In Yevgenia Belorusets’ story “March 8: The Woman Who Could Not Walk,” a woman sits down on a park bench in Kyiv on International Women’s Day. Instantaneously and inexplicably, she becomes immobilized. She appears to be untroubled by her predicament, lacking any sense of urgency: no phone calls, no pleas for assistance. That all comes later. For the time being, she greets the unidentified narrator with a countenance of calm, bemused resignation. “I am a living monument, but a monument that is soft, unstable, and wobbly; this is why, on such a day as today, I am not really worth your time,” she explains.
But she is precisely the type of person Belorusets deems worthy of attention, regardless of the day. Lucky Breaks, the Ukrainian photographer-turned-writer’s debut collection, published in 2022, consists exclusively of “soft, unstable, and wobbly” stories about the overlooked — the lives quietly buried by the ashes of history. More specifically, she writes about displaced women in the Donbas, the coal regions of southeastern Ukraine. Some of the women stay in their impoverished towns of origin; others seek refuge in Kyiv; several disappear entirely. All struggle to support themselves.
Originally published in 2018, the newly translated collection chronicles the years following the Maidan protests of 2013–14, which were instigated by the former president Viktor Yanukovych’s abrupt decision to not sign the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement and forge closer ties with Russia instead. The protests succeeded in driving Yanukovych out of the country, but Russia swiftly retaliated, annexing Crimea. Ukrainian Russian-backed separatists followed suit, seizing the Donbas region, where covert Russian military intervention, banditry, and insurgency have wreaked havoc ever since. Lucky Breaks lives within this precarious zone of intermittent warfare, teetering on the proverbial knife’s edge, anxiously anticipating Russia’s now-realized escalation.
Historical developments, however, take a back seat in the collection, ceding space to the personal. Current events are referenced obliquely, if at all. There is one exception to this rule, and it occurs in the story “My Sister,” in which the earlier Russian invasion is explicitly identified (“July 5, 2014. Streklov’s forces were leaving Slavyansk”). Two members of the Donetsk People’s Republic’s militant group jump out of a car and abduct the narrator’s sister. After a few months, the sister returns, and everyone pretends like nothing happened: “She doesn’t tell us anything, but we don’t ask her anything either.” Even in this story, the shadowy effects of history on an individual’s life eclipse the historical event itself; it is not the abduction but the uncertainty shrouding the abduction that assumes primacy. The narrator chooses not to investigate the situation but documents her limited understanding of it nonetheless.
This strategy, documentation without investigation or comprehension, is pervasive throughout Lucky Breaks. The women engage in little explication; they often withhold context and forget bits of information crucial to the story’s coherence. They seem to lack authority over their own narratives, presenting their experiences exactly as they exist within their minds: fragmented, displaced, and ambivalent. The women’s stories, in other words, are subjective testimonies of trauma. More precisely, as Belorusets outlines in “A Note Before the Preface,” they “focus on the deep penetration of traumatic historical events into the fantasies and experiences of everyday life.”
In the past, accounts informed by trauma have been dismissed as inconsistent and irrational, relegated to the hush-hush sphere of psychiatry. (And it goes without saying that women have been particularly subject to dismissal.) All of this has changed in recent years. Trauma has become focal to the now ineluctable discourse surrounding mental health. With the concept’s ubiquity has come expansion and redefinition — the sentiment, “perhaps we are all traumatized” — as well as an acute appetite for trauma-centric stories. Contemporary literature reflects this cultural fixation, generating tales of the psychic shattering precipitated by distressing circumstances. These books are often thin in plot and thick in interiority. At their best, they reproduce the state of a traumatized psyche on the level of form.
Belorusets accomplishes this formal coup through a multi-pronged approach. Not only do the women in Lucky Breaks regard their narratives with ambivalence and uncertainty, but they also quite literally lack ownership over them: they are by and large nameless. The stories flit between first, second, and third person narration at random; it is difficult to distinguish between Belorusets’ voice and the voices of the other anonymous women. At times, Belorusets seems to reveal herself through metanarrative asides: “If the story of this meeting does wind up in my book, it will be the most convoluted story — perhaps the one that will be described as the ‘worst’ story.” The narrative tone, however, remains consistent throughout the collection; all the women indulge in meta-narration, questioning and revising their interpretations, mid-story: “What is this story I am telling really about? Does it make sense to continue?”
This identity obfuscation is intentional. As Belorusets cautions in her unorthodox introduction, “The woman whose words opened this note will appear in these pages. It will be utterly impossible to recognize her, as her manner of speech has become the foundation for my own.” The disintegration of boundaries between author and subject (in this case, the protagonist of a previous photography project) parallels the disintegration of a stable sense of self facilitated by trauma. In Lucky Breaks, the women remain opaque not only to the reader, but also to themselves. They often act erratically, disconnected as they are from their motivations and sense of causality. In one story, a woman abandons a broken umbrella; upon retrieval, she scolds it as if it were a burdensome relative, preventing her from escaping the war zone. In another, a young seamstress painstakingly plans for a much anticipated trip to Paris. When the day of her flight approaches, she abruptly exits the cab, grabs her suitcase, and dashes into the forest, effectively disappearing. Both stories are instances of what Belorusets terms “clinging bewilderment”; they stubbornly resist tidy explanations and resolutions. The women — their personalities, aspirations, and responsibilities — are subsumed by external forces — the destabilizing state of affairs in East Ukraine — which infiltrate even the most innocuous, quotidian pursuits. Bewilderment is the point of continuity throughout the collection, the thread Belorusets consistently weaves.
In an additional layer of disintegration, Belorusets melds genre and medium, documentary (photography) and fiction (language). Lucky Breaks includes two of her photo series, But I Insist: It’s Not Even Yesterday and War in the Park. The series are interspersed throughout but do not correspond to the texts, unfolding independently. What’s more, it isn’t always clear which photographs belong to which series; they both consist of scenes from everyday life in Ukraine — mostly portraits or shots of industrial and green spaces. Her point in melding documentary and fiction is evident: any document is filtered through subjective experience; it’s impossible to fully extricate personal biases and agendas. She learned this firsthand through her career as a photographer, which time and time again confronted her with the issue of representation. Can a person truly be “captured” through an image? Belorusets is doubtful. So, she transmutes that doubt into her writing, aiming to convey a “certain quality of photography,” namely, “the quality of escaping the author’s final control over the materiality of past events, encounters, conversations, histories.”
The one recurring character in the book, Andrea, functions as an avatar for Belorusets’ skepticism. She introduces herself as a journalist who writes for obscure regional newspapers. Her articles are regularly rejected, and she has little faith in journalistic integrity. Assuming the role of an interlocutor, Andrea brutally picks apart the documentary approach, which she insists, “repose[s] on lies, self-delusion, and blind error.” While Andrea’s views are extreme, and at times cruelly unforgiving, she elucidates a central theme of Lucky Breaks: the volatility of meaning and the seeming implausibility of truth. For those living in the Donbas, deception and insecurity are givens. Russian propaganda is omnipresent and separatist troops hide in plain sight; the specter of the Soviet Union roams the grounds, while the EU figures as a misty notion.
The reality of life in Donbas, then, is clouded by a sense of unreality. Belorusets’ characters deal with this dissonance through various means, which yield various consequences. Some characters embrace war, reasoning that “It provides us with distraction from ourselves,” or commit suicide: “Suicide — oh, yes, the only field where youth can show what they’ve made of, apply themselves, and exercise their imagination.” Other characters recede deeper into eccentricism, cultivating fantastical, often comic, outlets and obsessions. The story “My Stars” provides a particularly poignant (if not the most eccentric) instance of this coping strategy: during a period of shelling — originating from an unknown source — women shelter in their basements and consult the local newspaper’s horoscopes to determine whether it’s safe for them to venture outside. (“Pisces could be sure of their well-being and safety from 3 to 5 p.m. that day.”) Relinquishing control in this way, placing their fates in the hands of the stars, seems intuitive enough to the women: if mysterious external forces could be a source of life-threatening danger, then why couldn’t other mysterious external forces be a source of protection? But once the shelling ceases, along with the fear of immediate peril, the horoscopes become incomprehensible to the women, despite the fact that the recommendations are unchanged, recycled with identical wording. In the hazy light of invisible, ambient threat, the stars are drained of meaning, of magical properties: “The stars used to be on our side: you might say they worked for us. Now it’s as if everything has broken down, the sky does whatever it wants. Time has turned its back on our city. There’s nothing happening.” Or, if you prefer, the women are drained of their willingness to find meaning, to exercise faith. Meaning is contingent in Lucky Breaks — expanding and constricting, solidifying and melting, perpetually.
In February, the war became overt, no longer “simmering,” but burning, a wildfire ravaging Ukraine. Belorusets, who splits her time between Kyiv and Berlin, has chosen to remain in Ukraine, where she documents her surroundings and experiences, as coalesced in a published “wartime diary.” The diary reads quite differently from Lucky Breaks — more solemn, more directly concerned with the conflict. But the same skepticism towards meaning persists:
“The word “war” is even less comprehensible during wartime than in peacetime, when it’s used quite differently. What is happening around me right now — the constant shelling and the warnings I hear — this is what ‘war’ should mean. But this word seems meaningless, because in war reality breaks into parts, islands, pieces.”
For Belorusets, the escalating conflict “should” yield clarity, but it doesn’t; she is even more bewildered than before. It is a deeply human instinct to believe that comprehension ensures protection, knowledge secures control. War breaks down this instinct, in all its violent senselessness.
Caroline Reagan reads and writes in New York City.
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