This novel (novella) is translated from Russian, and is the story of a soldier, Kostya, who fought in Chechnya and was badly burned while trapped inside an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC.) Owing to his severe disfigurement, Kostya becomes a heavy-drinking homebody. This changes when one of his team members from the war, Seryoga, goes missing and a couple surviving team members come to recruit Kostya to the search party.
Kostya struggles with an internal conflict common in war stories. On the one hand, Kostya both rationally recognizes the logic of why his friend and teammate, Seryoga, didn’t pull him from the burning APC (i.e. Seryoga believed Kostya was dead) and he loves Seryoga like a brother. On the other hand, he can’t help but feel that if Seryoga had pulled him out sooner he wouldn’t be so hideously disfigured and his life—as he sees it–wouldn’t have been ruined. Kostya battles those feelings, even defending Seryoga’s decision based on the reasonable conclusion that Kostya was already dead. A flashback sequence interwoven into the contemporary timeline shows us the events of the APC attack, including—ominously—a discussion of what should happen in case grenade breaches the vehicle for the benefit of the FNG (F@#%ing New Guy.)
The story is short and sparse, and that complements the somber tone of the book. One reason for dragging Kostya into the search is that his father is a Lieutenant Colonel with the pull to access records. This forces Kostya to open up the estranged relationship with his father and his father’s new wife. One gets the feeling that Kostya blames his father more for his plight than he does Seryoga, adding to any pre-war problems in the relationship. There are several factors that combine to move Kostya toward a better place over the course of the story. One is the thaw in relations with his father, and–perhaps even more so—the burgeoning relationship with his step-mom, Marian, who he discovers to be a genuinely good person. A second factor is reconnecting with his military buddies. Finally, his art (Kostya has a talent for drawing) becomes more therapeutic as his friends and family begin to see it.
This is a classic brothers-in-arms story. The universality of that bond comes through in translation. With tweaks in details (and choice of liquor) this story could be about American soldiers in Vietnam or Iraq. What makes the book a worthwhile read, if nothing else, is its display of that commonality of human experience. The ways of soldiers who have a stake in each other, even if they feel little personal stake in the grand strategy that has put them where they are.
I found this story to be moving and thought-provoking. I’d recommend the book—particularly for readers of literary fiction—and it’s definitely literary fiction. The story is character driven, and not plot or action driven. The tension derives from the interaction of characters and not (except for the APC fire) outside events. Many will find the ending abrupt and anti-climactic, but it’s the story of Kostya’s journey and not of any particular destination.