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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Serhiy Zhadan

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To purchase Mesopotamia

Title: Mesopotamia
Author: Serhiy Zhadan
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 310 pages
Original in: Ukrainian
Availability: Mesopotamia - US
Mesopotamia - UK
Mesopotamia - Canada
Mesopotamia - India
Mesopotamien - Deutschland
Mesopotamia - Italia
  • Ukrainian title: Месопотамія
  • Translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler (prose sections), and Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipp (poetry section)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine writing, and captures place and time well

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
NZZ . 24/11/2015 Ilma Rakusa
World Lit. Today . 7-8/2018 Ali Kinsella
Die Zeit . 22/10/2015 Katharina Döbler

  From the Reviews:
  • "Tatsächlich lesen sich die neun Geschichten wie moderne Balladen, die im zweiten Teil des Buchs in Gedichte münden. (...) Fast unbemerkt lässt Zhadan seine untereinander motivisch verknüpften Geschichten ins Phantastische kippen, zieht an der Zeitstrippe und erzeugt visionäre Bilder -- halb Ikonenmalerei, halb Computersimulation." - Ilma Rakusa, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "He shies away from nothing, diving into the city’s degeneracy with relish. (...) By presenting rape in the same light as lust, gluttony, and sloth, Zhadan accomplishes a masterful leveling of all wrongs. (...) Beyond the global insult, this is truly a shame, for it stains what was otherwise a decent work. Zhadan, foremost a poet, does best when he eulogizes the landscape and daily life of Kharkiv. His dialogue, as rendered by a bevy of translators, is snappy, and he occasionally surprises with an astute musing on the human condition. His verses, which comprise the second section of the book, also offer a more egalitarian picture of sex and love while still exposing the underbelly that makes Kharkiv Kharkiv." - Ali Kinsella, World Literature Today

  • "Unlogisch und geheimnisvoll sind alle diese Geschichten (.....) Die selbsterklärenden Kategorien, die erzählerische Ökonomie und die logische Dramaturgie, die wir aus der angloamerikanischen Erzähltradition übernommen und zu ästhetischen Leitlinien erhoben haben, gibt es hier nicht. Zhadans Buch gehört in einen anderen Kontext: den der wunderbar wilden Odessa-Geschichten von Isaak Babel und der kunstvollen Grotesken seines Landsmanns Gogol. Nicht der Geschlossenheit ist diese Art des Erzählens verpflichtet, sondern der Überraschung. Die immer auch eine böse Überraschung sein kann." - Katharina Döbler, 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:

       Mesopotamia is a two-part work: the first, 'Stories and Biographies', is a loose collection of nine stories, with some overlap of the action and reappearing characters. The much shorter second part of 'Notes and Addenda' is all poetry, an unusual complementary part. (The two parts are also translated by different translators -- different pairs of translators, in fact.)
       The stories are almost all set in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, located in the country's east, near Russia. One chapter does follow one of the locals as he travels to the United States and stays with relatives in Philadelphia for a summer (where, amusingly, he is repeatedly mistaken for Irish), but the collection is very Kharkiv-focused. But, despite the locale, Ukrainian-Russian tensions -- and larger Ukrainian national political issues -- also do not feature prominently in Mesopotamia; it is very much localized, on the large urban center and life there -- and on individuals and their day to day lives.
       Many of the stories involve gatherings, from the funeral of the opening 'Marat' to a wedding and a birthday party. The get-togethers bring together a variety of people -- which also allows Zhadan to slip characters into different stories, sometimes only incidentally, sometimes having them resurface more prominently. Yet despite the crowd scenes, the stories tend to focus on individuals, who often find themselves isolated and alone, or in an awkward dance with a would-be partner. Ties only bind so far: quite a few of the younger characters have been married and divorced repeatedly, and while there are a variety of fairly casual attachments, few prove more lasting -- with Zhadan exploring these forms of casualness in interesting ways.
       The stories aren't particularly eventful; several of the German critics compare them more to ballads than traditional stories. They are scenes from various lives -- stages or phases passed through, some compressed into a single day, other covering months or more -- narrated variously in the first and third person.
       There's a sense of fatalism to many of the characters, though surprisingly not so much a sense of resignation; many of their lots would seem to be relatively dismal, but they don't wallow in miseries. Ambitions are limited -- the wedding-chapter has a bride who: "didn't want to get married -- they'd already been living together just fine for a while, she figured if it ain't broke don't fix it", while John, who narrates the first chapter and crops up in several other stories never had any great desire to go into the greater world:

Back in the day, I'd decided to stick to familiar territory, so I took a job at the local factory, just two blocks away from where I live. I worked my way up, and fifteen years later I even got my own office. The factory hasn't been operating for ten years, though; I was like a deckhand trying to get promoted on a sinking ship.
       Mesopotamia is an impressive collage, less of a city -- Kharkiv is defining, but Zhadan desn't have to force the issue, allowing the city simply to be the solid background and foundation -- than of its inhabitants, mostly in their twenties and thirties, struggling to make their way through a post-Soviet Ukraine that is still trying to figure itself out. Zhadan writes well, and some of these stories flow along quite beautifully. There's quite a bit of conflict and confrontation -- physical, too -- but for the most part the stories ebb along without straining too much for shocks or twists. (Predictably, the most off-key scenes are the ones in the United States, out of the Zhadan's Kharkiv comfort zone -- though even in that chapter, when Zhadan sticks to the domestic, he's in beautiful command.)
       The poetry-addenda make an interesting complement and variation on what came before, though it is quite a shift -- marked, too, in and as a separate section.
       A bit loose and vague as a whole -- a not-quite-novel, a collection of stories that cling but aren't entirely tied together, a poetic add-on that isn't fully integrated into what came before -- Mesopotamia is nevertheless a consistently good read, Zhadan's writing and storytelling almost never flagging, even when it doesn't really seem to be going anywhere too particular.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 July 2018

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Mesopotamia: Reviews: 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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© 2018-2022 the complete review

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