Andrei Gelasimov: Thirst – Žažda (2003)

Masterfully translated from the original Russian by award-winning translator Marian Schwartz, Thirst tells the story of 20-year-old Chechen War veteran Kostya. Maimed beyond recognition by a tank explosion, he spends weeks on end locked inside his apartment, his sole companions the vodka bottles spilling from the refrigerator. But soon Kostya’s comfortable if dysfunctional cocoon is torn open when he receives a visit from his army buddies who are mobilized to locate a missing comrade. Through this search for his missing friend, Kostya is able to find himself.

I owe the discovery of  Thirst by Andrei Gelasimov to literalab, my go-to blog for Central and Eastern European literature (if you don’t know it, you need to have a look). While French and German publishers are usually much faster in discovering foreign language authors this time they are lagging behind big time. That’s probably a reason why I had never heard of Gelasimov before, although Thirst isn’t his only book, not even his first. When I saw the review I realized that I havent read any contemporary Russian literature. One more reason for reading Gelasimov.

Thirst is a taut, short novel about a young veteran of the Chechen war. He was trapped in a vehicle and almost left for dead, burned beyond recognition. So badly in fact that he looks like a monster. There is nothing to escape this truth. He is confronted with it while still in the hospital wearing bandages. Maybe it is typical for Russians, I’m not sure, but it’s typical for the people in this story, they tell the truth in such a direct way, it’s like a shot in the gut.

“So what about you?” he asked me. “Do you have a girl back home?”

I said I didn’t.

“That’s good. Other wise she’ll leave you. Have you seen what you’ve got under the bandages?”

“No. There is no mirror in the bandaging room.”

I was lying. There was a mirror in the bandaging room. For the nurses. In a military hospital where it’s all guys lying there, girls have to keep up with those things. “L’Oréal Paris. After all, I’m worth it”. Who knows where you’re going to meet your destiny? Though we weren’t much to write home about. If you really tried, you might make one normal guy out of three of us.

The novel which is told by the first person narrator Kostya, is told in small episodic chapters that move back and forth in time. At the beginning of the novel Kostya fills his refrigerator with Vodka bottles. Drinking Vodka, watching TV and scaring children is all he does at present.

Kostya’s life before joining the army was the typical life of a young boy, coming from a poor family. The father left the mother when Kostya was just a little child, he cannot stand his step father and school is a drag. One of his teachers discovers that he has a rare talent. Kostya is amazing at drawing. While his teacher downs one Vodka bottle after the other, young Kostya spends his time with him instead of going to school and develops his rare gift. After the teacher is fired, Kostya starts to drift, joins up, gets trapped in the APC and is maimed. He still occasionally meets his three army buddies who were with him that day. Seryoga, who got out and saved them; Pashka and Genka, trapped with him but saved earlier because they still moved.

While Kostya is on a binge, Pashka and Genka appear and want him to follow them to Moscow and look for Seryoga who has disappeared.

If I hadn’t had the chance to meet quite a lot of Russians in my life, I might have thought this constant Vodka drinking was a cliché. Well, it’s not. And it’s very hard to say “no” because, drinking is a sociable thing. You’re only considered to be an alcoholic when you start drinking on your own. Saying “no” to a glass of vodka in public makes you look unsociable and unfriendly. Very often a glass is accompanied with a toast, mostly to some dead relative. That’s where it gets tricky. Saying “no” to the Vodka is saying “no” to the toast is not acknowledging people’s dead relatives…

There is a lot of drinking going on in this novel, a lot of pain gets swallowed down with the Vodka. The society depicted here is very patriarchal, with very strictly defined roles for men and women. Little Kostya remembers how he was told not to cry as a little boy when he had to have his appendix removed.

“What’s this, are you going to cry now?” The voice under the surgical mask was different now. “You’re our future soldiers. Soldiers don’t cry. Do you like to watch war movies? What? Speak up. Why are you whispering?”

I repeated , “I like them.”

“There you go. And you know how soldiers sometimes get hurt? But they don’t cry. They have to be brave. Will you be brave when ou go to war?”

The war and becoming a soldier is mentioned all through the novel. Even during Kostya’s childhood it is clear, he will be a soldier once, like his father was and that he will fight in a war as well. His father fought in Afghanistan, he will fight in Chechnya.

The characters in this novel are very lonely, the way they treat each other is honest but brutal. A lot is left unspoken. Despite all this, the book isn’t only bleak. There is hope as more even than the novel of a veteran it’s the novel of an artist. Art transforms the way Kostya sees the world, it will eventually transform him as well.

What I liked a lot is Gelasimov’s writing and the voice. The cuts, the shifts, the breaks which reminded me sometimes of the nouveau roman without the experimental feel. Each and every episode is very well executed, highly expressive, realistic and to the point. They are like short sketches that capture the characters and say more about them than a lot of words. One of Gelasimovs novels, Gods of the Steppes won the 2009 Russian National Bestseller literary award. It will be available in English this September. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Do you have any modern Russian literature recommendations?

28 thoughts on “Andrei Gelasimov: Thirst – Žažda (2003)

  1. Yes, I agree about the vodka drinking. I was there 3 times and always considered “unsociable and unfriendly” because I just can’t stomach the stuff. (Fortunately or un, as the case may be, I had a husband at the time who made up for my lapses in that department.) You make a good point about contemporary Russian lit – so many of us think of Russian lit as somehow ceasing to matter when the USSR fell. I appreciate hearing about this book, even if it sounds too depressing for me! (I especially love your quote: “That’s good. Other wise she’ll leave you.” Holy cow! :–)

    • Harsh quote, isn’t it? They all dish out lovely truths…
      I was called unscociable and unfriendly as well. I cannot drink heavy stuff like that. It’s amazing to watch them and those toasts they come up with…
      I thought about it some more and remembered one or two writers but they already published before the USSR crumbled.
      I can see why he gets so much praise but i wouldn’t mind if the next book I tried was a little less bleak.

    • ah…then if I go to Russia one day, just assuming I have enough to go there, I would also be called unsociable because all alcohol beverages are forbidden for me 😉

  2. I don’t think I’ve read any contemporary Russian literature. By “contemporary” I mean by a writer who isn’t dead.

    I’ll wait for Guy’s review to decide whether I’ll read it. It’s war stuff, I’m not sure it’s for me.

    PS: Good for me I don’t plan on living in Russia. I’d look more than unfriendly. Can you cheat with water? After all, it looks the same, who’s going to notice when they’re drunk? 🙂

    • I had a discussion on alcoholism once and was told that their drinking was therapeutic. While we Western Europeans and Americans needed therapists, they just drank a bottle of Vodka and were ok again…Beuuuh
      The war isn’t really described, it’s the effect that’s mentioned. The largest part is their search for their friend.

  3. Nice review, Caroline! The cover with the vodka bottle seems to summarize part of the story 🙂 Gelasimov’s next book ‘Gods of the Steppes’ looks quite interesting! Have you read ‘Rasskazy : New Fiction from a New Russia’ edited by Jeff Parker and Mikhail Iossel? It is a collection of short stories. I have read some of the stories in the collection and they are very beautiful.

    • Thanks and thanks for that suggestion, Vishy. Isn’t one of Gelasimov’s stories in that collection? The cover is spot on. They couldn’t have found a better one. I really hope not everything he writes is this bleak.

  4. This is by no means a book I would ever pick up from the cover or the description, but as ever you do a fabulous job of making it accessible to me. I have to admit that Russian writers, whether contemporary or classic rarely feature in my reading, and one day I’ll fix that. But I did adore the Olga Grushin novel I read recently (although she lives in the States so that’s perhaps a bit of a cop out).

    • Despite the fact that I read a lot of war themed books this was very far from my reading at the moment as well. I was impressed by the writing but then again I like non-linear storytelling and especially when for a chnage, there are not chapter titles with dates and such for orientation.

  5. Hi Caroline,
    I haven’t read any modern russian novels, in fact I haven’t read anything from Russia post the USSR era. but your review makes this book sound fascinating… looking forward to reading Thirst.

    and yes, I had though all the vodka was a cliche or an internet meme… one of your commentators cleared my misconception on that point.

    On an unrelated note, I shifted my blog to its own website! wish me luck and success! also, please visit and follow the new place, as i’ll be posting here from today…

    • I seem to have read a very small number of post USSR novels but the authors started writing much earlier.

      I can assure you, the Vodka drinking is no cliché.
      I wish you all the best with your new site. I will still get your notifications in my reader. It’s clever that way.

  6. Now that you mention it–I don’t think I’ve read any contemporary Russian novels at all. I’ve read classics and recently read Chekhov, but I’m not even familiar with the sorts of books that are popular there now. I’ll have to check out Literalab now to see what other books they recommend. I have added this one to my wishlist–maybe not something I would have picked up otherwise, but you make it sound very interesting. Interestingly it is an Amazon Crossing book, which I think is their own label. Another book I read last year was also published by Amazon, so I may have to look more often at that imprint.

    • It’s a short book, 120 pages, longer would have been hard but I thought it gave me a really good impression of a lot, the type of writing, the topics that matter and much more. He is an author to follow.
      Literalab is excellent. He does a lot of posts with lists and suggestions and his reviews are great. The output is amazing as well.
      I was also surprised to see it was an Amazon Crossing title. I would have thought they publish completely different books but now I will have to have a look as well.

  7. This looks like an interesting book. Even though I majored in Russian in undergrad, I don’t think I’ve read any Russian novels more recent than the 1970s. I’m going to have to fix that at some point.

    I love that you mentioned the fact that it’s rude to refuse vodka. There are only two polite ways of getting out of taking shots if you’re desperate–you can say you’re on medication (doctor’s orders!) or you can say that you’re a recovering alcoholic. 🙂

    • I think once we start digging we will come up with a lot of interesting post 1970 authors.
      I never thought of those option. I once sneaked out with my mouth full and let it down the toilet …

      • Haha… drinking with Russians is always an experience.

        I recently read a Russian sci-fi book from the 70s which was pretty interesting. I wonder what more recent Russian sci-fi is like. I may have to look into that.

  8. Not sure I’ll tackle this one, Caroline, but I’m intrigued by Nina Berberova. I haven’t read any contemporary Russian lit except for Solzhenitsyn. I’d be very interested to hear a woman’s viewpoint on this era as I know so little.

    I watched a Russian movie last year and was struck by how pervasive vodka was in their culture. It seemed that every occasion, no matter how small, warranted shots of vodka. I would never fit in, as I prefer wine.

    • I can highly recommend Nina Berberova. I still haven’t read all of the novels I have, I kept a few “for later” as I liked her so much.
      The drinking is frightening. And they really love thier Vodka. They do drink other stuff but they prefer it. I’m not into anything stronger than wine with the exception of the odd cocktail.
      The amazing thing is that this goes through the whole society, women and men, rich and poor…

  9. Great review Caroline.

    I have yet read Russian books but I want to one day. Russia has its own charm on me, I had a period where I was thinking about studying Russian, but you know I got stucked in Japanese and haven’t move on yet.

    The main character sounds like an interesting character to explore. I always feel sorry toward war veteran with great wound

    • Thanks, Novia.There is an instnace in the book in which he compares his wounds with the wound of a guy whose spine is crushed and they discuss whose fate is worse. It’s an importnat book because we only even hera of the dead but “wounded” can mean a lot of different things, and often it’s horrible.

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