(New Directions, 2023)
Yevgenia Belorusets knows what art demands, she’s won honors as a photographer and a fiction writer, but by and large, her War Diary works outside aesthetic considerations. Notions of structure, of creating character or exploring concepts, are rendered irrelevant in the opening lines. The first entry is for last February 24, the day Putin invaded Ukraine⎯ and there’s your project. There’s a war on, stranding Belorusets and her parents in Kyiv. The family was already displaced, thanks to the earlier seizure of the country’s easternmost counties, and this text is actually the author’s second out of the ongoing Russian aggression. The first also appeared on New Directions, just a year ago: Lucky Breaks, hackle-raising fairytales of women set adrift, their homeland torn out at the roots. In the new book, however, the devastation isn’t fictional. There’s actual shrapnel and blood-spatter in every day’s entry, most featuring a photo and running a couple of pages, taking us through the first month-plus of the hostilities.
The Diary has no shortage of emotional moments, like the struggle to shepherd a sick father into the bomb shelter, or the kindness a neighbor shows abandoned pets. Some street encounter usually provides an entry’s central incident, and there’s also the occasional message, dismaying more often than not, out of the combat zones. For friends and relations in Kharkiv, in Mariupol, the power’s often down and, when the lights do come on, they can draw fire. Whether in Kyiv or across the Donbas, such material has of course a human scale, we feel the hurt, but as I say, the Diary can’t limit itself to the merely personal. Nearly every entry sets the larger context for the suffering close to hand, with a summary off the news, often the government’s Telegram posts: “Is today only the third day of the war? Mariupol: fifty-eight civilians wounded. Kyiv: thirty-five people, including two children.” Then too, the text makes room for a simple stunned outcry: “It simply can’t be.… What neighboring country bombs a city to rubble in the twenty-first century?” Again and again, thoughts and feelings and words off the airwaves are slapped together roughly, the unfinished stories showing their jagged edges, and this is precisely the point: an eyewitness record, dizzyingly in-the-round.
For Ukraine, the first month yielded an essential victory, as the country held on to its capital. For Belorusets, a natural-born creative, it compelled her to more matter, less art, taking snapshots and scribbling (or more likely at a keyboard, perhaps even on the phone, fingers flying). As each day delivers its fresh insight or agony, she tries to trace how the latest snuck up on her. Everyone she meets is on edge, oversharing to be sure, some wracked with despair some surprisingly upbeat, and there’s even room for humor: “Cleanliness is a must,” the author tells herself, “in a dark room with taped windows⎯ … go ahead and mop your apartment.” This emotional whipsaw, now happy, now gloomy, defines much of the communication from outside the capital as well, and the effect comes to seem deliberate, saving the entries from sameness. It’s as if artistic discipline asserted itself after all, as the text took shape. Belorusets also airs out her gifts for metaphor⎯ “I notice the traces of joy… on the sandy bottom of my restlessness”⎯and aphorism: “An entry feeds the illusion that conclusions can be drawn⎯the illusion of a logical narrative.”
Yet while that line may be quotable, it takes us to chaos and pain, and overall War Diary mounts an unrelenting assault on civilized comforts. The effect can be seen in the photos, as well, most of them blurry, nondescript, wholly unfit for Steven Spielberg’s war. Such grunge suits the project, and not just in aesthetic terms; also it has a military value. A photo on the internet is vulnerable to enemy hackers, and may reveal a target or other information, and whenever Belorusets squints into her iPhone, she risks running afoul of the Territorial Defense:
As I took the camera out of my pocket, a car stopped next to me. Four armed men jumped out. They took my cell phone, searched my bag, and asked me who I worked for. It took a few minutes. Then they excused themselves, all four of them looking nervous and tired.
The fighting makes her an outsider in her own neighborhood, one of “this broad, unarmed, almost delicate category: ‘civilians.’” She’s even working in an outsider’s language, German. This choice may’ve been an expediency, allowing for quick publication in Berlin, the author’s second home⎯ at book’s end, she at last takes the train to Germany⎯ but nevertheless, by eschewing her native tongue, the author reveals something fundamental to this unique and valuable document. In the Lucky Breaks stories, after all, Ukrainian served Belorusets well, rendering terror via poetry and hallucination. In this book, however, the English translator Greg Nissan will have none of that; if the Territorial Defense is “looking nervous and tired,” he states it plainly. He gets across the sense of working breakneck, keeping things raw, the better to defeat any tendency to denial and delusion. Belorusets herself admits, at the close, she “does not want to accept the war.” She too needs this Diary “to convince myself, persuade myself over and over again, that the war exists, that it endures, that I finish writing this entry in the midst of war.”