Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada

the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Length of Days

Volodymyr Rafeyenko

general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Length of Days

Title: The Length of Days
Author: Volodymyr Rafeyenko
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 338 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: The Length of Days - UK
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Harvard University Press
  • An Urban Ballad
  • Ukrainian title: Довгі часи
  • Translated by Sibelan Forrester
  • With an Afterword and interview with the author by Marci Shore

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B : sharp and creative

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Length of Days is set in the city of Z -- a thinly-disguised version of author Volodymyr Rafeyenko's native Donetsk, in Donbas -- with Russian and Russian-backed forces fighting the Ukrainian regime, mirroring the events there from 2014 on. The four-part novel presents life -- and death, lots of death -- in the war-torn city.
       The first part is titled 'The Bathhouse', and largely revolves around the Fifth Rome bathhouse, now run by Sokrat Ivanovich Gredis -- who had, until recently, been a professor of philosophy but, noting, among other things, that: "a completely different type of philosophy was going to be favored here" under the occupiers, and with nowhere else to go, had withdrawn to this bathhouse left in his charge . His daughter is dead, but she had adopted a girl named Liza, and Sokrat inherited her, as it were; Liza is a young woman in her twenties, but: "Sometimes she's ten, but othertimes she's eighty".
       The bathhouse is not quite an oasis -- except on most Tuesdays, when it is closed to the public, and it: "protects you from military concerns, from hatred and loss". Nevertheless, Sokrat finds himself in some hot water -- on a Tuesday, no less -- because of some suspicious activity going on there -- or rather, inactivity:

     "In the past eight months thirty-eight men have gone missing in the Fifth Rome, professor," Hirkavyi lit a cigarette, got to his feet and walked over to the window, "That means four point seven-five fighters lost per month due to a love of cleanliness. And you know, it's not the worst people going, but professionals, with experience of military action.
       For all of Sokrat's protestations of ignorance and innocence, it doesn't look good. but then little does in Z, where the occupiers are responsible for all sorts of outrages -- so also the fate of Sokrat's wife --, and the Ukrainian government efforts to counter the occupiers only increases the suffering, the city battered from all sides. On the one hand: "Z, of course, is an open wound. An absurdity that's become a fact of being", while also: "Z has slammed shut [...] There's no way out".
       As Rafeyenko convincingly suggests, the occupiers efforts, ostensibly to join Z to the grand Russian motherland, find in fact and inevitably: "Z joined the USSR instead of Russia". The foundations had been there from the beginning:
Impenetrable, insolent, so Soviet. It was totally impossible not to recognize it. It had always remained here. In the time it had taken the Soviet Union to sink into the sand like spilled blood, that crap hadn't gone anywhere. In the nineties, when communism was slowly rotting away in shallow rainbow puddles, Z had been hit by a criminal revolution. The inferno had fully entered the city., like a black penis into a white codpiece. It bonded with the Soviet crap, and turned into some thing.
       On the periphery of a Ukraine that is still finding itself and its identity, Z feels like an odd man out. As one character says of country:
A love affair with the devil -- that's Ukraine ! Love with metaphysics, with Being, with death. And not borders at all, drawn by who knows who and with goals nobody understands.
       The absurdity of the situation translates into the fiction as well, where eventually even: "The fabric of reality was tearing". The fantastical elements and scenes fit smoothly in the narrative, since reality itself is so bizarre here. As one character notes:
The plan was to join Z to Russia ! But, as it is said, man supposes, but the stringed universe disposes. On the whole, we needed your mining region exclusively in the form of a zone of controlled instability. However, as things have worked out, we have a meta-zone in which a series of physical laws do not work correctly. That's how it goes.
       It makes for a sharp commentary on the situation in Donbas around 2017 -- and now beyond, to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the resulting ongoing conflict.
       As one character points out, part of the problem is that: "Ukraine is not a territory" -- as:
     "A territory may be settled with whomever. And, in general, it doesn't matter with whom ..."
     "But a country can't be ?"
     "But a country -- it's the people. people, child ! Not the railroad ties, not the train tracks, not the smell of creosote, not the little trees flashing by in the starless, eternally virgin Ukrainian night.
       In the conclusion, Sokrat, Liza, and a Veresaiev, who also worked at the bathhouse, are to go, after a fashion, to Kyiv -- the heart of Ukraine -- but, in this surreal situation from which escape seems impossible, their passage there is also to be an extraordinary one. It's no coïncidence that Sokrat is a philosopher -- and Liza a (wo)man-child/innocent --, as life's absurdity -- heightened here to all extremes -- can only be taken philosophically.
       Dark -- pitch-black, in part -- but often also humorous, The Length of Days is a creative and penetrating take on recent Ukrainian events and history, capturing the perversity of both Russian actions and motives as well as the complexity of the solidifying of Ukrainian national identity in this area where for so long there had been such overlap with Russian culture (as also Rafeyenko originally wrote the novel in Russian).
       A solid novel in its own right, The Length of Days is of course of particular interest in light of the ongoing conflicts in the wake of Russian aggression in Ukraine and its close-to-the-ground description of the resulting hellish conditions in the occupied territories.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 April 2023

- Return to top of the page -


The Length of Days: Other books of interest under review:

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       Ukrainian author Volodymyr Rafeyenko (Володимир Рафєєнко) was born in 1969.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2023 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links