The small volume fits in the palm of your hand. It opens with a series of lectures. The speakers are human or animal, the audiences composed of individuals who may be one or the other, neither or both. The line between what it means to be a human or nonhuman animal is necessarily blurred. What strange hybrid world is this? Fantasy? Allegory? Yes, no. It is, in reality, fiction extracted from raw facts and experiences too terrible to be accessed directly. This collection of stories, musings, questioning and philosophizing is drawn from real life as understood through animal metaphors. The speakers in each piece are victims of the Russian-Ukrainian war in the Donbas who find voice in a form that illustrates the confusion, despair, resistance and resilience of the Ukrainian people in a way that conventional reportage can only hint at. Yevgenia Belorusets wrote this book, Modern Animal, just last year in 2021 after six years interviewing those living in the contested region. Now, with a full-scale invasion underway, the strangeness and horror of life during wartime is being played out across the entire country.
Belorusets is a Ukrainian journalist, photographer and writer, writing between Russian and Ukrainian, who has dedicated herself to documenting the lives of the disenfranchised—even the non-human—who exist on the shifting borders of social, economic and political realities. As I write this she is in Kyiv, reporting daily from the street level, photographing when possible, recording her encounters, and describing her contacts with friends caught elsewhere in worse situations. Each day at 4:00 pm ET, the publisher of this volume, isolarii, posts her latest update to their site and I wait for it, just to know she is okay. This missive with its growing mix of melancholy and resolve gains new followers every day. Having read Modern Animal it feels like life imitating art imitating life, but now filtered through a lens of stark realism.
When I first received a copy of this book months ago, I confess that I was not quite sure what to make of it. Each chapter was so different that I wondered if it was building to a larger fictional construct that I needed to track, to make sense of. Mentions of war and allusions to notions of ethnic cleansing emerge early on, but foolishly I was not putting two and two together. Perhaps I was not well informed about events in Ukraine and, of course, at that point Russia had not yet started amassing forces on its wider borders. And even then, few expected full scale invasion. But as soon as the wind changed I reached for Modern Animal and started from the beginning again.
It may seem a small act, but literature can bring foreign truths home in a way straight nonfiction, news media and internet interaction cannot. That is the brilliance of Belorusets’ approach, though I’m sure she would not have wished for it to be doubly necessary in this way. The entries in this book are presented as lectures, documents, accounts and fables. There is a dreamlike quality that often reminded me of the writing of experimental Chinese author Can Xue. Off-side, if you like. In one chapter, for example, called “Migetti (fourth lecture-document: interview with a viewer)” the speaker talks about being very sensitive to the emotions of animals and describes a German language animal video that she found especially moving. The film chronicled the adventures of a she-wolf named Migetti, whose entire pack was killed during an outbreak of canine distemper. As the lone survivor, she sets out in search of another pack to accept her. Her journey is difficult, the viewer is terribly worried about her fate and overjoyed when she is finally successful in finding a new community. But the final paragraph is telling:
Oftentimes, we don’t feel anything, even when major tragedies strike. We see earthquakes, explosions, wars, but we can avoid thinking about these narratives as though we’re walking down a separate road. But here, it all happened differently. She still haunts me.
Questions of fate and the nature of humanity recur. Narrators describe their connections to cats, dogs, birds, and horses. Some stories are melancholic, others cruel, but many carry a stubborn magic—like the wonderful tale of a hen who carries the soul of a woman who died in a city hospital far from her mountain village back home, but then continues to share her body with the dead woman’s soul for the rest of her life. With the recent exodus of refugees from Ukraine, this fable bears its message of hope in a new context.
Sadly Modern Animal has become a sharply prescient text of late. One of the most striking entries, simply titled “A Small Aside” begins with mention of American interference and even reference to Afghanistan, followed by a tirade about war (and dogs) but ends with the speaker’s expression of his refusal to take up arms in the present conflict in Donbas:
I won’t go fight this time, not for this side, not for that one.
What kind of war is it when no one even calls it a war.
Only if tanks roll into Kiev, then I’ll pick up my gun and go defend my house and family! I’ll stand on the roads to Kiev! I’ll stand like a boulder, I won’t let anyone get past me.
I am aware that the attention Russia’s invasion has garnered has drawn questions about the many ongoing conflicts around the world that seem to be forever under the radar. And that is a very important issue. But as this small book demonstrates, war was simmering in this corner of Ukraine for years. We human animals are, if anything, very good at looking away.
Modern Animal is a haunting read, an often entertaining and disturbing treatise on life during war—a collaborative, animal-sensitive effort between Belorusets as author, documentarian and photographer, and the people who have already been living with conflict for half a dozen years. Important when published, it is now essential reading.
Modern Animal by Yevgenia Belorusets is translated from the Russian by Bela Shayevich and published as part of isolarii’s series of “island books.” It has been reissued and can be purchased here. One hundred percent of the proceeds will be donated to support Ukrainian charities.