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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Serhiy Zhadan

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Voroshilovgrad

Title: Voroshilovgrad
Author: Serhiy Zhadan
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 403 pages
Original in: Ukrainian
Availability: Voroshilovgrad - US
Voroshilovgrad - UK
Voroshilovgrad - Canada
La route du Donbass - France
Die Erfindung des Jazz im Donbass - Deutschland
  • Ukrainian title: Ворошиловград
  • Translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Wheeler
  • Jan Michalski Prize, 2014
  • Voroshilovgrad was made into a movie in 2018, directed by Yaroslav Lodygin

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Our Assessment:

B+ : trippy novel of contemporary Ukrainian

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
NZZ . 29/1/2013 Judith Leister
Publishers Weekly . 11/4/2016 .
TLS . 21/9/2016 Uilleam Blacker
Die Zeit . 3/1/2013 Thomas E. Schmidt

  From the Reviews:
  • "Weg und Ziel, Name und Inhalt, Wort und Bedeutung driften auseinander in Zhadans poetischer Ukraine, in der seit dem Ende der Sowjetunion alles ins Schwimmen gekommen ist und ganze Menschenmassen zur «grossen Völkerwanderung» aufgebrochen sind. (...) Zhadan ist ein überragendes Sprachtalent." - Judith Leister, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "For Zhadan, loyalty and fraternity are the life-giving forces in this exhausted, fertile, near-anarchic corner of the country, and though his expansive imagination and rich lyricism contrast unfortunately with his stereotypical female characters, readers will be touched by his devotion to a land of haunted beauty, "high sky," and "black earth."" - Publishers Weekly

  • "Zhadanís aim in the novel is to get to the heart of a region that is often maligned, misunderstood and marginalized even in Ukraine itself. (...) Voroshilovgrad is more, however, than an exercise in post-Soviet social realism. There is something deeply mythological about the novel, and, like many myths, it is a story of homecoming. (...) Zhadanís language is suitably elastic, swinging from the tough, streetwise irony of a Ukrainian Irvine Welsh to flights of ebullient poetry more reminiscent of Bruno Schulz." - Uilleam Blacker, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Ein gewaltiges Panorama wird entrollt (.....) Serhij Zhadans Erzählweise drängt zum Szenischen, das Buch lebt vom pointierten Dialog und von der atmosphärisch dichten Schilderung (.....) In einem Buch von 400 Seiten drängt sich auf diese Weise das Episodische ziemlich in den Vordergrund. Zhadan ist auch nicht zimperlich, die Dose mit Figuren und Begebenheiten ordentlich vollzustopfen. Die Charaktere bleiben flach, sie haben kaum Geschichte und wenig Aussicht (.....) Aus westlicher Lektüre-Sicht ist das natürlich ein großes Ungenügen. Andererseits ist dies ein wahrhaft ukrainischer Roman, also ein west-östliches Hybrid" - Thomas E. Schmidt, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The 'Voroshilovgrad' of the title is a no-place: "The city doesn't even exist anymore" the narrator, Herman Korolyov, observes -- also noting now: "I never went to Voroshilovgrad, either. And now there's no such thing as Voroshilovgrad". The city is a stand-in for a lost part of Ukraine, and a lost part of the past -- even as, essentially, it's just as much here as it always was. Physically, the locale continues to exist -- "It's called Luhansk now" --; indeed, it's reverted, in name, to its original state; 'Voroshilovgrad' was merely a signifier of the Soviet interim (the town bizarrely renamed not once but twice after military commander and Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, Kliment Voroshilov, first from 1935 to 1958, at which point it was renamed Luhansk again, and then from 1970 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990). Herman never visited the city but has an image of it -- from the memory of postcards of the place, yet another symbol of a lost past (post cards !).
       Voroshilovgrad is steeped in nostalgia, a novel of a homecoming that is a very Ukrainian spin on both the notion of you-can't-go-home-again and the question of what home (in its broadest definition, like the German Heimat) means.
       The novel begins in Zhadan's native Kharkiv, the second (largest) Ukrainian city, close to the Russian border in the country's north-east. Herman has a decent job, but it's somewhere on the fringes of legitimacy and, at age thirty-three: "I realized it was about time to start looking for a straight job". News from back home upends any plans he might be considering: his brother has up and left, without a word -- apparently for the Netherlands, though Herman can't reach him and can't be sure. His brother operated a gas station in the backwoods where Herman grew up -- and, in fact, for convenience's sake, the business has long been in Herman's name; technically, he is the owner.
       Herman wants to check things out and heads to the country; "I'll be back tomorrow", he assures his roommate and his employer. But already on the way there someone tells him:

     You only think you'll leave right away because you've forgotten all the experiences you had there. Once you remember, you'll find that leaving is much harder than you think.
       The gas station seems to be pretty successful -- which is part of the problem. An oligarch (and member of parliament) has been buying up gas stations in the region and has his eyes set on this one, too. He made Herman's brother an offer, but Yura turned it down, and now the interest buyer's hoods are upping the pressure; for much of the novel Herman has to worry about the threat of the whole place going up in flames.
       Things move -- and don't -- in mysterious ways here. Herman sits around: "anxiously awaiting their next move -- waiting for arson, corpses, and so forth", but a lot of time goes by without anything happening. Meanwhile, the locals:
looked at me apprehensively, expectantly, waiting for me to take some action -- it was as if they were frozen in place, forced to listen to what I would say and watch to see what I'd do next before they could make a move themselves
       There's a constant tension in the air, but it is twinned with an entirely laid-back attitude. This world has few clear-cut rules and there's nothing resembling rule of law. Herman encounters a variety of groups (and some individuals) who have a sense of their place and do their own thing, while overlap generally leads to messy clashes in which no one is quite clear what is acceptable and what not.
       There are flashes of danger and violence. Herman goes on the run for a while; typically, that too leads to him essentially getting lost in the Ukrainian hinterlands (and comes with the usual unusual encounters).
       This part of Ukraine is a sort of wild west -- but sparsely populated, and seemingly disconnected form the world at large. Predictably, almost no one's phone ever works, so there's limited communication over any distances (while the closer personal exchanges barely make for connections most of the time either). There's no future here, but Herman is pulled back in, and he isn't even sure why. Someone suggests:
I think the whole reason you guys have to deal with so much shit is because you're too attached to this place. You've got this crazy idea in your heads that the most important thing is to stay here, not give an inch -- you're clinging to your emptiness. There's not a fuckin' thing here ! Not a single fuckin' thing. There's nothing to cling on to -- how come you can't see that ?
       And Herman sees that in some of those mired here, too:
     "Listen, isn't it the future that keeps you somewhere ? I mean the idea that you'll have a future there ? Do you really think there's a future for you here ?"
     "No," she admitted, "but there's a past. The past can also make you stick around."
       It's not so much former glory -- though Herman does fondly recall playing on the winning football team, and enjoys suiting up again -- but an inability to move in any way forward. Set in their ways and their place, those Herman deals with live in a sort of fantasy-land -- and he finds it easy to drift along there, too. There's no clarity to the present here. It remains undefined. The powerful can try to muscle their way in and through, but even they are faking it. Everyone seems to be making it up as they go.
       They're clinging still to Voroshilovgrad, itself a fantasy. Fairly early on, Herman observes: "But there's no Voroshilovgrad anymore. We have to come to terms with that" -- but it turns out not to be that easy.
       It makes for a laid-back novel of contemporary Ukraine -- set far away from the bustle of the metropolis and the Maidan, yet no less representative of the unsettled state of a country unable to transition.
       A bit meandering -- but generally in a good way -- Voroshilovgrad is an entertaining sort-of-road-novel with quite a bit of depth to it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 April 2016

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Voroshilovgrad: Reviews: Voroshilovgrad - the movie: Other books by Serhiy Zhadan under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Ukrainian author Serhiy Zhadan (Сергій Вікторович Жадан) was born in 1974.

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