x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Another country: a novel about Chechnia

The first great piece of literature to be inspired by the Chechen conflict, German Sadulaev’s postmodern novel raises challenging questions of national identity in wartime.

A Chechen soldier checks the explosion site at an electricity network shelled by Russian warplanes, in the outskirts of Grozny in 1994.
A Chechen soldier checks the explosion site at an electricity network shelled by Russian warplanes, in the outskirts of Grozny in 1994.

I am Chechen!
German Sadulaev
Harvill Secker
Dh75

What seems a very long time ago, a large nation invaded a small Muslim country, slaughtering civilians and its ragtag resistance. The world tutted and shrugged its shoulders. The country fought back through a campaign of insurgency marked by the rise of Islamist extremism, suicide bombings and the killing of innocent civilians. The world tutted again. If there were any lessons to be learned, they didn't seem particularly relevant elsewhere.

Before all that happened, the writer German Sadulaev left Chechnya in 1989 to become a law student in Russia. He was 16 at the time. He compares himself to the swallows in his homeland - why do they bother to fly home when they are capable of visiting warmer climes? "There is no logic, other than the logic of love." Yet the swallows returned home to the horror of war ("Have you ever heard swallows scream?" he asks). Sadulaev never did. Instead, he stayed in Russia and heard about the horrors from his friends and family. This book is the result: a scattershot collection of meditations, vignettes and short stories about the fate of those he left behind. It is the first great piece of literature to be inspired by the conflict: at once a meditation on nationality and history and a primeval howl at its horrors.

The narrator is a literary character who is also called Sadulaev (we are in postmodern territory here; the author made his name as a kind of Russian Bret Easton Ellis), who broods on dispatches from home, hounded by surveillance, rejected by employers, refused registration and shaken down by the police. He takes solace in drink and drugs, and of course women, Russia's "most terrible weapon". They alone can "disperse and destroy the Chechen nation," Sadulaev writes. "There is no happiness: the fair-haired Russian women brought us none." It's a long way from the excitement he found in Pink Floyd tapes and stolen kisses on school trips in his youth.

This clash between the promiscuity of the big city and the sexual conservatism of his homeland is a pointer to one of the book's major themes. Sadulaev is a mongrel, the product of a Chechen father and Russian mother. Is he a Chechen or a Russian? What does nationality mean in the light of enforced immigration, of mutable borders and shifting political aims? Not so long ago Sadulaev's country was a Soviet state. Chechens fought for the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, but no one mentions it because the historical truth conflicts with political imperatives. Russia needs the image of Chechnya as an enemy to justify its wars there. The separatists, for their part, claim their country's involvement in Afghanistan was a mistake by those fooled by Soviet propaganda.

Political needs usurp historical precedent with sudden brutality. On 5 January, 1995 the Russians bombed the biggest car market in Chechnya. "When air planes appeared in the sky, no one thought to flee," Sadulaev writes. "These were our planes - Russian planes - probably searching for combatants. Well, what was that to us? Why should we hide in bomb shelters, as crazy General Dudaev had urged us on television?" But a plane swoops low and drops a cluster bomb into the crowd. "Hundreds were torn limb from limb. Human meat, mingled with the tangled steel of cars, so that it could only be buried as one mass."

Sadulaev is riddled with guilt. Every memory of his homeland brings him to the war, the murder of friends, the destruction of places he loved. If his Chechen nationality is defined by anything, it's the war. Until recent times they were a ragtag of tribes who'd never been able to unite. "If the Chechens become a nation," he notes acidly, "they'll have only the Russians to thank."

Is that the only way that the country can be identified? Sometimes it seems the Russians are fighting the land itself: "Every night the heavy shells fly howling over the houses in the direction of the mountains and explode with a boom somewhere far away. The mountains shudder and moan, yet they are tremendously large. To kill the mountains you would need to fire for a tremendously long time. That will indeed be a famous victory…" The mountains, of course, are where the rebels are hiding. Except they aren't. The mountains are small and could be swept in a couple of days. The rebels hide in the towns, shielded by a Chechen omerta. If nationality is a slippery concept, then so is conflict.

How prophetic the Chechen wars seem post-September 11. Of course, we shouldn't even use the term 'war': it carries the connotation of armies meeting across plains or trenches. As in Iraq or Afghanistan, it becomes a mystery when these struggles begin or end. When the generals said they do? "The war is over, the war ended long ago. When spring arrives, the bandits are using the growth to avoid detection. When winter comes, the rain impairs [the soldiers'] visibility. Perhaps soon they'll even reduce the size of the limited contingent of troops."

This mutable, illusory world rather suits the postmodernist writer. Little wonder Sadulaev's narrator is unreliable. In one chapter his mother takes him to a psychiatrist, who says he has a tendency to confabulate - to conflate his fantasies and memories. His book is full of stories about what happened to his friends and experiences he allegedly had: if he's making them all up - well, he's not the only one. In this environment, half-truths are the norm: "In order to justify their combat pay, they fire shells. Sometimes they collect the shells, bury them in the earth." A week later it is announced on television that the latest terrorist cache has been discovered. And: "Every week the Russians report the death of a senior figure. Every rebel is … someone's 'right hand'. These right hands are in quite a muddle. I have begun to imagine the rebel leaders are multi-armed Indian gods with nothing but right hands."

A note of black comedy enters the novel. When Sadulaev tries to take his injured sister to St Petersburg, Muscovite bureaucrats confront them at the airport ("Anyone here with firearms wounds, step this way"). But if the sister hasn't taken part in combat, the bureaucrats want to know, "how come she's wounded?" Sadulaev wonders if the babies in the hospital from which he picked her up were combatants, too.

One day a plane flies over his village and a friend of his falls to the ground. On her chest is a tiny spot. She is taken to hospital where a surgeon saves her life by pulling a tiny flechette from her working heart. A unique procedure. Where will a paper be presented on it? "Nowhere, because this couldn't have happened. There couldn't have been flechette bombs, because they've been banned under the Geneva Convention. Russia doesn't have cluster bombs."

In this kind of war, public opinion is every bit as important as the indistinct wins and losses of the combatants. Sadulaev sees Russian success on this front. In "smug, corpulent" Moscow, tens of thousands of people take to the streets to protest the abolition of pensioners' concessions, chanting "Putin - out! Putin - out!" "We forgave our generals, up to the elbows in innocents' blood, but we cannot forgive them our travel cards, can we?" the author observes. It's not even the case that the Russians have any sustaining sense of their own identity. We are told the story of an old soldier who has grown tired of life, having "found himself in a foreign land, where the wearing of Soviet orders and medals was prohibited, where men who had watered the earth with their blood from Brest to Moscow and back to Berlin were called occupiers". The soldier is beaten to death in a bar, and feels alive for just one more minute.

Perhaps we shouldn't find the history of modern Chechnya so shocking. While the names and details of Russian nationalism change, the imperatives remain the same. Occasionally Sadulaev writes as a Russian (the book's title is as much a question as an affirmation). He summarises: "Novgorod, Moscow, St Petersburg, the Russian Empire, the Socialist Revolution, collectivisation, industrialisation, the victory in the Second World War, advanced Socialism reforms, privatisation, liberalisation - to this day, do we really know how to build on anything other than bones and blood?" As I finish typing this review, Google News Alerts inform me that Russia has just killed a leading militant in the Caucasus. What's there to do, but tut and shrug our shoulders?

Alan White's work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, Observer, Private Eye and The Oldie.