The Dissonance of War: Reviewing Absolute Zero by Artem Chekh6 min read
Artem Chekh is everywhere these days. From the lecture circuit at prestigious universities in the west to topping best-seller charts all over Eastern Europe, this writer-turned-soldier has a unforgettable story to tell. Chekh served as a senior rifleman and gunner of an armored troop-carrier in the Ukrainian Armed Forces in Donbass, in a war that is being erased from history. Amidst Russian misinformation campaigns and inconsistent official state rhetoric, it’s difficult to find a cohesive narrative about the conflict in Donbass, thus the importance of Absolute Zero.
Chekh is part of the Ukraine PEN Club, Ukraine’s first international human rights organization and first international writers association. Since the creation of the Ukrainian chapter in 1989, PEN has become a collective of poets, playwrights, essayists and novelists that actively condemn free speech discrimination and human rights abuses.
Chekh is no stranger to fame. He got his break in Ukraine’s literary scene in 2007, as a winner of the City Youth Novel contest, hosted by Ukrainian publishing house Flio. His latest novel, Tochka Nul, was awarded the Ukrainian-Belorusian prize Warrior of Light; the Ukrainian prize LitAccent of the Year; the Mikola Gogol state prize; and the Joseph Conrad prize. Tochka Nul, now in English: Absolute Zero, has been translated by Olena Jennings and Oksana Lutshyna, and published by the British-Dutch publishing house Glagoslav. Glagoslav has put part of the manuscript on Issuu, a public document host more emblematic of self or indie publishing. Glagoslav has gone out of its way to make Tochka Nul accessible to its Western audiences, in line with Ukraine PEN Club values.
Short but powerful vignettes
Described as a “lyrical diary” by the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, the book is divided into short two-page essays that are easy to digest, yet heart-wrenching in content. While Absolute Zero is a collection of snippets from the diary Chekh kept as a soldier, they humanize the very real faces and towns involved in the Donbass conflict in the same muckraker style journalist Anna Politkovskaya was known for.
What is apparent from the beginning is just how out of place Chekh is in the army. He has more in common with a media-savvy millennial of the professional managerial class than a drafted Red Army soldier just decades before, a comparison he makes throughout the book. “Weapons, with abbreviations instead of names, hardly speak to me. And how could they, if I was one of those few at school who always skipped the chapters about war in Tolstoy’s War and Peace?” These anecdotes are easy to relate to and it’s unsettling how he could be any one of us.
In the chapter, We Succeeded, Chekh writes about his various reasons for enlisting. His friends back in Kyiv dream of mandarin Odwalla smoothies, mountain bikes, and European travel. He acknowledges that going into war to push Ukraine to pursue membership in the European Union for the sake of visa-free travel does not make for meaningful discussion with other soldiers. The motivations of the other soldiers are so different and represent mentality from provincial parts of Ukraine invested in the fight for patriotism and other factors. He ends the chapter owning his decision “with the clear conscience of a citizen of a free country that beat corruption, you’ll be able to ride on a new blue mountain bike straight to Europe.” I can’t help but wonder which part of that statement is genuine.
A privileged writer plays soldier
Chekh paints an unromantic picture of war, to such a degree that it confuses me as to why he chose to go into combat at all. In the beginning, he writes, “I struggle to figure out what I’m doing here. Come on, man (I’m angry with myself). You wanted it so much! You really wanted to play this game – the comic Major Payne, or some other war hero! You wanted training and drills until you fell over, fighting till victory, and a return from war as a decorated veteran! You wanted to become one of them! You wanted to get a taste of real patriotism! So suck it up. Get used to it! Or let yourself go to hell.”
While the rest of the book contains snapshots of mundane barrack life and the nuance of open fire in a highly politicized landscape, Chekh loses me on why he chose to enlist. Is fighting in Donbass some kind of twisted volunteer mission, like the Peace Corps for recent Ukrainian college grads? The further I read, the book leads me to believe it was some kind of misled arrogance that led him to join the army. His writing style and story sure is poignant, but could he possibly be on the front lines for his next literature award?
His uniform is 100% cotton and his boots are noticeably more expensive and in better quality than the other soldiers. The others urge him to transfer into the morale unit or promote to second lieutenant, as he is college educated. He turns the offers down, citing that nobody would take him seriously, he would make excuses, perform favors for his friends, and lose important documents. These observations seem self-aware but are extremely indicative of life of privilege, as he doesn’t leverage his capital in any way to help others. I can’t decide if he is selfless or selfish.
A Ukrainian wartime tale indeed
Despite the author’s somewhat pompous attitude, the story is humorous. He is still Ukrainian, after all. He has an eye for the silly and unexpected when it comes to life in the barracks – an unlovable cat named Cerebral Palsy, a soldier’s wife’s gingerbread that almost caused an incursion, a wifi password’s encrypted meaning – all color the narrative that is life in war-torn Eastern Ukraine.
“The commanders can reduce the norms. For example, give out only one pair of socks for every two soldiers. Or, let’s say, linstead of a liter and a half of water a day they give us a quarter. And one hundred fifty grams of bread with sawdust. It’s so that we don’t get too much. Clearly, too much of the good stuff leads to sickness. This is all so funny and so sad at the same time… I wonder, what will be next?” He doesn’t go two chapters without mentioning toilets, latrine, or shit at least once. The chapters about what one has to do to be qualified as an “avatar” are hilarious.
The book isn’t entirely the lamentations of a lost millennial. Chekh has provided the insight into a war that many would like to ignore. The repercussions of Maidan and the Revolution of 2014 are still felt by Ukranians across the country, with no end in sight. Ceasefires, internal displacement, and tens of thousands dead and wounded on both sides show this is a deeply personal conflict that cannot be ignored and needs international transparency. While I may not understand Chekh’s intentions, there are many that appreciate his honesty into the insight of the reality that is being swept under the rug in Eastern Ukraine.
Chekh’s memoir is funny, raw, and misled, at times. His book is the human face behind the headlines of hypocritical governments. “We witnessed how easy it is to make money from this war… We see this war the way it is. And we see ourselves the way we are.” Chekh comes away from the experience with clarity – in himself and in his country.