Sunday, May 28, 2006

Red Star Rising

As is habit, the forthcoming Russia trip is already affecting my reading choices. The last book I read was by one of the country's great novelists; the next book I'll read is a travelogue through the former Soviet states of Central Asia. Add in a St. Petersburg article in the latest New Yorker, the Lonely Planet guide, and Sidearm Delivery, and most of my reading these days is Russo-themed.

Including, of course, the just-finished book:

#16 - "The Hidden War" by Artyom Borovik

Not at all what I expected -- I'd figured that this was a straightforward chronicle of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Instead it's more focused -- Borovik speaks to soldiers, officials, deserters, family members, rebels -- taking down their impressions. The overall effect is that no one on any level really knew why they were there.

Borovik spends considerable time with the grunts, but avoids the temptation to start seeing the war through a romantic prism of the self. There's a tendency (Hemingway-fueled?) among many contemporary war reporters to treat conflict as a personal rite of passage: "I went away to cover this war, and came back a man." This isn't always bad; Anthony Loyd's "My War Gone By I Miss It So" is great. And to be honest, when I was directionless and jobless after college, I entertained daydreams of heading off to some remote field of unrest and inflicting my insights upon it.

Back to Borovik -- while he's a presence in the book, he's largely a narrator rather than a character, an observer in the mold of the great Ryszard Kapuściński. At times, in fact, he's too withdrawn for my tastes. I would've liked to see a bit more of his reactions to some hairy situations.

Some of the book presupposes a knowledge of late '80s Soviet internal events, and so parts were a bit lost on me. Overall, though, a solid book -- perhaps not up to the level of Michael Herr's "Dispatches" or Kapuściński's "The Soccer War," but very good nonetheless.

* * *

Borovik died in a 2000 plane crash; "The Hidden War" is, apparently, his only book translated into English, though I've seen references to other books. Read more about "The Hidden War" here.


Brushback said...

You're probably already aware of some of the Russian web sites that are in English-- in any case, here's a blog from Moscow that has some cool pictures of the city:

Moscow In My Eyes

I've never been there, so I'm kinda envious.

gsdgsd13 said...

Wow -- very cool pics. Thanks for passing that along.

alanah said...

My knowledge of Russian literature is limited to Dostoyevsky. "Crime and Punishment" is a favourite (and strangely there's also a sylvester & tweety cartoon based on that book. Useless trivia, but you never know when it'll come in handy, I figure.)

Something you might want to check out - it's kind of odd, but the New York chef Anthony Bourdain did a book and an accompanying 22 episode cooking "tour" which featured a brilliant episode on his visit to Russia. The book is "A Cook's Tour", and the show went by the same name. I've not read the book, however.

I'm not sure how you'd find the program (maybe a library?) but it's been re-run on PBS a couple times, I do believe. His journey through Russian food takes him to some amazing places. Perhaps it'll inspire you.

gsdgsd13 said...

I'm sort of stuck on the "Sylvester and Tweety" adaptation -- I'm going to have to find that. It's been years and years since I've read "C&P," so I won't be able to speak to how faithful it is, but that sounds fascinating.

Thanks for the Bourdain tip. I'll try to hunt that down. Of course, I still haven't followed through on my vow to make more of Tiger Williams' recipes, so it may be a while.

alanah said...

I've been trying to identify the name of that cartoon, with no luck. The trouble is, it might not have "officially" acknowledged its reference to C&P.

I just remember reading the book at University, and the first thing I thought of was this great cartoon. (Which possibly doesn't say a lot about my education, but there you go.) But I've also spoken about this with other people over the years who remembered the cartoon the same way.

Hopefully I'll stumble across it again. Youtube fails me.