I finished Zinky Boys a few days ago but I was unsure what I thought about it and I wanted to better process what I had read. It’s Sunday morning, it’s sunny, my little dog lies underneath my chair, and I think perhaps I am able to understand the book I have read.
Soviet Russia fought a war with Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. I don’t know much about it. I was too young during that period, and on top of that, Russian news doesn’t really hit the Australian airwaves much, unless it is to make fun of Vladimir Putin. Russia is a big, important country, and Soviet Russia was even more important, but it doesn’t register much over here. I suspect Australia is virtually never mentioned in Russian media.
All this is to say that I came into the book blind. Alexievich composes her books by conducting interviews with people and then massaging it into a collection of first person recollections and memories. In this book – I have not read any of her other works – the people telling their stories are de-identified. Which means we have “A Widow”, “A Mother”, “A Doctor”, “Private, Gunlayer”. They tell their story, whatever it may be, and as the book progresses it becomes clear what the war was, and what it wasn’t.
It wasn’t a just way, or a pretty war. Of course war is never pretty, but the popular understanding and memory of a war can make it seem glorious after the fact. World War II is very much an instance of this – the Allies are proud of their achievements, and hold their victory up to the world as a moral success (let’s put aside the controversy and complexity of the war). The Soviet War with Afghanistan, however, was mired in murkiness from the start. Soldiers talk of how they were only allowed to mention very specific things to people back home, and often they were encouraged to make things up – everything is going well! We are helping the people rebuild! Nobody dies!
But this was not true. The war was vicious, and ground up soldiers like mincemeat. The widows, and the mothers grieving dead children, are of course upset and traumatised, but so too are the soldiers, and the nurses, and the medics. One comment from a soldier is striking – he recounts how he was the best at throwing grenades, and the sharpest shot, but neither of those skills are of any use back home in Russia. He doesn’t know what to do with himself, because all he is good at is killing.
This is a difficult book because it is effectively 180 pages of sorrow, violence, tragedy and betrayal. The small moments of levity or lightness are provided solely when mothers recall fondly how kind their little sons were as children, or when wives remember the sensitivities of their husbands. But in both instances, they are talking of the dead.
This is not a long book, and nor is it particularly complex in structure or syntax. Primarily, the stories told are in the words of the people telling them, which means there is a lot of slang, and the tone remains conversational throughout. The challenge – and it is a challenge – is that of facing horror and violence, page after page. My time with the book was stretched out longer than I thought it would be, as I could only easily read three or four stories before I needed a break.
The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.