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?