There is a very eerie atmosphere that envelopes the stories in Yevgenia Belorusets’ collection, Lucky Breaks. This is a collection that examines the impact years of covert military action on civilians, in this case the conflict in the impoverished Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that has been ongoing since 2014. But, by terrible coincidence, the release of this work in English came on the heels of Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine and these tales of loss, displacement and trauma have suddenly been cast into sharper relief. This slender volume has become more vital than it already was. As I write this I am following the author’s daily diary updates from Kyiv and her words have become an essential aspect of my emotional connection to a situation that seems to so difficult to understand. That is in no small part because she is deeply interested in ordinary people whose stories are so often unheard, caught up in events they did not choose and cannot control, detailing her character’s situations with a measure of ironic humour and serious respect for the remarkable resilience that keeps them going against the odds.
Fate delivered her to Kyiv. She didn’t know what to do about it. She came from Donetsk, where she had lived her whole life in her parents’ small one-family house. She had enough money in her purse. That’s what they say, “in her purse,” although her actual purse was empty, full of wind. The wind part, really, is a hyperbole. She simply possessed something in her name, that’s it. That’s how they say it around here, “to her name,” although her name had nothing to do with it; she was not a name brand. In short, she had some inviolable reserves that she had to unseal and start systematically spending. (from “The Lonely Woman”)
Belorusets is a photojournalist and writer whose work is informed by political activism. Her intention is to call attention to communities that have been traditionally underrepresented in the media. Her writing is an extension of this practice. In her collection Modern Animal (reviewed here) she worked with people she had interviewed during her years in the Donbas to reimagine their painful experiences in stories and allegories involving animals. In her “Note Before the Preface”, she indicates that in this volume, her activity with the tales she tells is still a form of documentation, not of the conflict itself, but “the surmounting of the conflict through a dialectical process—by means of phantasmagoria, narrative, conversation, and the disclosure of certain situations to the viewer.” Alongside the stories there are two photographic sequences: But I Insist: It’s Not Even Yesterday Yet and War in the Park. The grainy black and white images are not labeled and are not related to any of the stories, rather the three threads are presented as a means of showing how different contexts collide and unsettle narrative certainty. I will also mention, and I don’t know if it is intentional, but the font used is unusually small, effectively slowing the reading process and forcing the reader to remain longer in each of these relatively short stories.
The protagonists of Belorusets’ stories are almost exclusively women, told either directly through the character’s voice, presented as conversations or interrogations, or recounted as the experiences of someone the narrator knows or knows of. As such, the author’s own voice may be reflected in some of the accounts. Refugees and others displaced by war are common. Many find themselves lost and disoriented in Kyiv, longing for a past life or trying to build some kind of existence in the city. They look for work where they can find it. Others belong to an uncertain fate. Like the story of a florist so attuned to her art that she hardly exists outside her shop in Donetsk, but what happens to her when her home and shop are destroyed? Some characters arrive in Kyiv bearing the scars of the traumas they’ve endured, like the woman who keeps trying to rid herself of a broken black umbrella she carries only to rush to retrieve it, scolding it, pouring her pain into this tattered object. There are dreamers and horoscope readers and a woman who visits a cosmetologist as one might a therapist, in the belief that her hands can somehow massage, however temporarily, the griefs she carries right off her skin. Through their troubled, often eccentric circumstances, the characters who inhabit these thirty-two stories contribute to a narrative of life under hostilities in a state of persistent, slow burn. The heat has since been turned on full and these tales become at once more affectionately folkish and more disturbingly real. The stakes are even higher. One recurring character advises the narrator that she wants her identity hidden, and challenges her motives for recording her story at all:
“At least this is why it’s better for you and me if no one knows about me. I could be called to account, couldn’t I? But is there anything I can change? Not only can I not change anything, I don’t dare to. You’re taking my words down, you must be counting on something. Maybe a tearjerker about how we’re all full of hope for a new future, or how the country that we loved became our prison. We’re left to eke out a life in small towns, to die in plundered hospitals, in dirty public wards, or in empty little apartments where there’s no hot water for months and the lights go out at night. Someone will want to hear about us, and then you will be the one invited to a grand festive table, you will be the one they’ll raise a toast to.” (from “Lilacs”)
In allowing such passionate, disaffected voices to come through, Belorusets has, in Lucky Breaks documented a mood existing in Ukraine before the barrage of headlines that have come to dominate our understanding of her country. That is what a documentarian does. And she is still doing it as bombs fall.
In his informative Afterword, translator Eugene Ostashevsky describes Belorusets’ writing as being most indebted to the early stories of Nikolai Gogol and early Soviet era avant-gardist Daniil Kharms. Elements of the supernatural and the absurd normalized within the realm of the everyday and a concern with narrative fiction appear in her work. Ostashevsky also discusses her controversial choice to write in Russian which raises political and logistical challenges for a Ukrainian writer in a country where most people can speak both languages, but Ukrainian is increasingly favoured and protected. He does admit, however, that her Russian is subtly different from that spoken in the Russian Federation: “it is based on the rhythms and intonations of the Russian of Kyiv and Kharkiv, and continues the Russian-language line of Ukrainian literature.”
Despite the grim subject matter that underlies (and sometimes surfaces) in this collection, Lucky Breaks is filled with warmth and humour. Belorusets’ characters exhibit much the same mix of anxiety and resolve that can be seen in the people she meets today as she wanders the streets of Kyiv and compiles her journal that is, at this time, being translated and shared with followers around the world on a daily basis. However, I can only hope that a wartime diary is not required too much longer.
Lucky Breaks by Yevgenia Belorusets is translated by Eugene Ostashevsky and published by New Directions in North America. It will be released in the UK by Pushkin Press in May.