Creating Art in the Face of War Crimes: On John Freedman’s “A Dictionary of Emotions in a Time of War”
By Ada WordsworthOctober 3, 2023
A Dictionary of Emotions in a Time of War: 20 Short Works by Ukrainian Playwrights by John Freedman
“Theatres are bombed to dust,” writes Andriy Bondarenko in his poem in the volume, “Survivor’s Syndrome.” “Theatre actors guard / checkpoints with machine / guns in hand / What kind of world is this?” Bondarenko is one of the 20 Ukrainian dramatists from the Kyiv Theater of Playwrights whose writing features in this astonishing collection. The theater was scheduled to open in March 2022, and prior to the invasion, each of the resident playwrights had produced a text for performance; it was these that Freedman had hoped to compile in this volume. He was prevented from doing so by the refusal of the theater’s artistic director, Maksym Kurochkin (represented in the collection with “Three Attempts to Improve Daily Life”), who suggested that the writers produce new works instead, in response to the total upheaval of their country. The result is a visceral, fearless, and often heated collection of poetry, diary entries, short stories, dramatic monologues and dialogues, scripts, and social media exchanges. It is not always clear if these pieces are fiction or memoir, but either way, the personal tragedy is apparent in every single one.
Iryna Harets’s prose piece, “Planting an Apple Tree,” describes her diarrhea on the day of the invasion: “I thought if a bomb flew into the house, I would die awkwardly, pants down on the toilet. A silly death.” In Natalka Vorozhbyt’s short play “Three Rendezvous,” a woman masturbates in a refugee center on a video call with her soldier lover, whose death by shelling occurs simultaneously with her orgasm: “[Somewhere in the laptop, a moan is interrupted by a particularly strong explosion, a scream, a blow. Silence.].” In “A Sense of War,” Julia Gonchar’s protagonist cannot face being touched by her boyfriend, even in the knowledge that he is about to return to Ukraine to fight: “In the morning I push Seriozhka away, angry at him for touching my breasts, my genitals. I’m sick, I’m in pain, I want to scream. I know we may be apart for a long time.” Death and destruction are present throughout these pieces, laid out in tandem with the everyday mundanities of war, such as distinguishing an explosion from a clap of thunder, lacking the windowless room needed to provide protection from an air strike, baking your own bread when food shortages make shop-bought loaves impossible to find. These experiences are portrayed with the cold nonchalance that only those with firsthand experience can achieve.
The themes of the volumes are hatred and raw, unfiltered rage. When so much of the narrative surrounding the war on Ukraine requires Ukrainians to simultaneously perform the roles of perfect victims and perfect heroes, this rage and hatred is a liberating experience for the reader. The anger of the writing points in multiple directions; mostly, of course, towards Russians—those family members and one-time friends who at best showed apathy, and at worst glee, when the tanks began to roll towards Kyiv. Liudmyla Tymoshenko ends her prose memoir—whose topics range from Gone with the Wind to the potential for nuclear war to the experience of listening to the sound of her grandmother’s windows being boarded up after an air strike blew them out—with a postscript about her uncle: “P.S. My dad’s brother, my uncle Valeriy, named after the great test pilot Valeriy Chkalov, now lives in Bryansk, in Russia. He and his family consider us fascists and they support the Russian president in this war.” The anger towards Russians is perhaps most viscerally felt in Oksana Savchenko’s contribution, “I Want to Go Home,” one of the few written (partially) in Russian. “I do not feel sorry for conscripts,” she writes. “Shit on them. I do not feel sorry for Russian soldiers. Shit on them. I do not feel sorry for Russian women who will not be able to buy up IKEA. IKEA? They won’t be able to buy it up. Burn in hell, bitches.”
There is an anger, though a very different one, towards fellow Ukrainians too. In “A Dictionary of Emotions in a Time of War,” which shares its title with the collection as a whole, Olena Astaseva describes anger not just towards Russians but also towards Europeans (“who could stop it, but are too cowardly”); towards Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz and Volodymyr Zelenskiy; towards God; towards both those friends who switched to speaking Ukrainian after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 and those who did not; and towards those who fled the country and those who remained. “I give in to anger so it won’t hurt so much,” she writes. Lena Lagushonkova’s “A Topol-M Rocket Fired at a Cat Named Brooch” includes a social media post from a volunteer at a zoo in Hostomel, where some of the heaviest fighting occurred at the beginning of the war. The volunteer needs someone to feed a cat whose owner is trapped outside the city. In response, she is met with disgust: “My mother in Bucha is dead. Why should your cat be alive?”; “So, you left your cat to die, but expect people to stick their necks out, right?” In “Temporarily Displaced Persons,” Kateryna Penkova is quietly furious with the refugees she is housing in a shelter in Kyiv who do not offer to help her parents leave the capital. The tensions that war creates among its victims are not easily or comfortably conveyed, but there is relief in their expression.
The issue of language is never far away in contemporary Ukrainian writing, where the Russian-speaking population continues the slow journey towards Ukrainian. Prior to February 2022, you would hear as much Russian as Ukrainian on the streets of Kyiv, and people would flow seamlessly between the two. This is inevitably changing, as Ukrainian Russophones make the decision not to speak the language associated with the state that is attacking them. The two best-known contributors to this collection, Kurochkin and Vorozhbyt, began their careers writing in Russian; both now write in Ukrainian. Out of the 20 contributions, 15 are in Ukrainian, one is in Russian, three are bilingual, and one is written in Russian but using Ukrainian Cyrillic. Freedman, who explains all of this in his introduction, places reminders throughout the book, often in the form of stage directions, to ensure that the linguistic tension is not lost on an Anglophone audience: “[Voice switches into Ukrainian. She only speaks in Ukrainian from here to the end of the monologue. The actor might remind an audience of that from time to time.].”
Even the playwrights’ names are subject to linguistic discussion. Tetiana Kytsenko ends her monologue “Call Things by Their Names” with a plea to her English-speaking colleagues to cease referring to her as “Tatiana,” the Russian spelling of the name: “My dear friends, Tatiana is something else entirely. The difference of one letter is enough to embrace an entire worldview.” Astaseva’s message conversations with a friend in Russia are marked out by the change in the spelling of her name to the Russian “Yelena,” as well as the references to the cities of “Kharkov” (Kharkiv) and “Kiev” (Kyiv).
The majority of the contributions were written at the beginning of the full-scale invasion and imbued with the shock of those first days and weeks, but four were added later. The delivery of Kurochkin’s “Three Attempts to Improve Daily Life” was delayed for nine months while he served in the Territorial Defence volunteer battalion. Though it is unclear how autobiographical his account of friendship in the trenches is, the final result is a depiction of the tragic mundanity of death in trench warfare. “They started pounding us around noon,” he writes of the bombardment that killed his protagonist’s closest friend on the front line. “They pounded us right out.” Kurochkin’s matter-of-factness is a telling contrast to the drama of Vorozhbyt’s simultaneous orgasm and explosion, written months earlier in the first phases of the war. “I see Birov wherever I look,” Kurochkin’s narrator continues. “We keep talking, even though he’s been killed.”
Anastasiia Kosodii’s prose/poetry piece, “How to Talk to The Dead,” was also written slightly later in the war, for a performance at the Theater of Playwrights in June 2022 following the Ukrainian victory in the Battle of Kyiv. Kosodii describes a conversation with an artist who now exhumes bodies from mass graves. “‘At night,’ he said, ‘I sometimes hear sounds. I don’t fear them. They are our dead. Let them come. They died so badly. I, at least, will talk to them.’” The text shifts to poetry, as Kosodii imagines an alternative world where the dead are still living. Her references, to a Ukrainian audience, are explicit; she describes a new apartment block in the Kyiv suburbs (Bucha), a metallurgical plant by the Sea of Azov (Azovstal in Mariupol), and vacations to salt mines with local champagne (Bakhmut). For Ukrainians, these names capture the most horrific points of violence of the war. Perhaps some of these will be lost on a Western audience less well-versed in the specific geographical locations of the key sites of the invasion, but the quiet power of Kosodii’s writing remains.
In each case, the combined talents of playwright and translator have created something quite extraordinary, free from cliché and the tired metaphors of war. Bondarenko begins his contribution with the lines, “Every one of us was killed / Already that morning. / We are no longer / What we were then. We died,” but the joyful truth, amid the fury, depression, and anguish of these responses, is that, against all Western expectations, Ukraine has survived, permanently altered but still breathing. As Freedman points out in his introduction, while Vladimir Putin and his allies continue to insist that Ukraine does not exist, these texts prove the opposite to be true. In response to Adorno’s declaration, the contributors to A Dictionary of Emotions in a Time of War prove not only that art is possible after a crime against humanity but also that it is possible during one. A Dictionary of Emotions in a Time of War will surely become one of the defining pieces of art from this horrific era of history.
Ada Wordsworth is a writer from London. Her work has appeared in The New York Review of Books, 1843, and Granta, among other publications. She also runs KHARPP, a grassroots charity rebuilding homes in Eastern Ukraine.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Maria Sonevytsky explores how a simple phrase became a slogan invoked by Ukrainian politicians, soldiers, intellectuals, and keyboard warriors.
Don Franzen interviews law expert Mark Ellis regarding recent atrocities committed in Ukraine and the subsequent international pursuit of justice.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!