For Many Will Be Deceived
(Svetlana Alexievich, Zinky Boys)
Written by: Aleksandra Jovičić
Translated by: Lena Ninković
Boys play war games. They choose a wide field, an abandoned site, and then postpone the start of the game for a long time because nobody wants to be on the enemy side. The game is interrupted by the falling darkness or strict voices of the parents – the troops are disbanded and the “soldiers” go home. When they grow up, the boys are sent to the real war. In the name of the motherland. In the name of the people. But that is a different story to tell.
Speaking of her book cycle Voices of Utopia (which includes her novels War’s Unwomanly Face, Zinky Boys, Chernobyl Prayer, Last Witnesses, Secondhand Time), Svetlana Alexievich states that she has long searched for a literary expression that will allow her to depict her vision of the world; finally, she chose human voices. People who speak in her books are ordinary people – witnesses of important socio-historical events. The author focuses on the fate of an individual and, instead of general truth, reveals individual truths by saying that the material for her books is found on the street, by the window, while listening to conversations of ordinary people whom history often ignores and drowns in general truths. She sheds some light on their fate and enables readers to hear the voice of an ordinary man – a man like them, a man who suffers. Svetlana Alexievich’s chronicle is never-ending and, listening to the spirit of time, the author is in constant search for the new heroes. (v. В ПОИСКАХ ВЕЧНОГО ЧЕЛОВЕКА, С. Алексиевич)
The book Zinky Boys is included in the above-mentioned cycle. It tells the story of people who played war games as boys, but later experienced real war as adults. Some of them “returned” in zinc coffins transported by planes euphemistically called “black tulips”. Those who survived returned completely changed, often incapable of living in peaceful conditions where rules of war do not apply.
The book begins with a prologue -a mother speaks of a son who returned from Afghanistan. The message we read from her confession is the thread that runs through the whole text. She says it is not her son who returned from the battlefield; it is someone else, a person whom she does not recognize, who is not at all like the young man whom she sent off to war. In such peaceful conditions, her son kills a man – a completely ordinary and everyday occurrence in war, because war is “a job that requires you to kill” (p. 16). Due to his crime that would earn him a reward in a war, the man is sentenced to prison and condemned by society. The mother is troubled by her guilty conscience because she did not realize her mistake earlier, reflecting on how she saw her son off to war – worried and with unconcealed pride. Both the narrator and the mother cannot shake off the impression that the war is the product of the male nature, therefore largely incomprehensible to women. (p. 24)
The theme of the novel is clearly hinted at in the title, while the chapters entitled The First Day, The Second Day, The Third Day could be read as an allusion of the inverted Divine creation story. God needed six days to create the world, and then rested on the seventh. Man needed only three days to destroy God’s miracle and reverse time.
In the subtitle of the chapter The First Day, the author inserted a part of the Gospel of Mathew: For many will come in my name. Further in the text, we read the following words: For many will be deceived. This chapter is dedicated to the confessions of the deceived. The story alternates between the testimonies of those who have directly experienced the horrors of war in Afghanistan and the confessions of their family members. These are usually mothers, who have stayed back in their homeland fearfully waiting for the return of their loved ones. Young men, nurses, officers, mothers, fathers – they are all deceptively drawn into war; some – unknowingly; some – believing that this way they will escape peacetime troubles; some – thinking they are doing an honorable deed and defending freedom and peace in their homeland. And all of them were deceived, sent to hell and to death for the sake of somebody else’s interest; and Can our Fatherland really send our finest sons to death for nothing?(p. 59)
Reading various confessions, we are unable to avoid the impression that all of them merge into one voice expressing anger, remorse and inability to return to how it used to be, to the normal course of life. Some of the confessors are unable to wear the clothes they wore before the war because they feel they belonged to different people. They are unable to return to their lovers, family, friends, and it becomes clear that the fate of those who have returned “alive” is equally tragic as of those who were transported in zinc coffins.
“I’ll never be able to return to the day when I went to war. I’ll never be the way I was before I went to war.” (p. 89)
With its subtitle But another dies with a broken heart, chapter The Second Day refers us to the Book of Job.
The story of the righteous Job in the Bible examines the question of the existence of evil in the world and why it seems to us that those who face hardships and suffer are usually the ones who do not deserve it. Harington explains Job’s mistake: He knows he is innocent, and yet, he chooses to suffer. Job’s suffering questions the traditional belief that good is rewarded, while evil is punished. Three of Job’s friends defend this view, convincing him that he must be sinful and, judging by the severity of the punishment, his sin must be grand. Job is convinced that he is not guilty; however, as someone who is a supporter of the traditional belief that evil must be punished and good rewarded, he finds himself in a paradoxal situation and does not see a way out of it. His sufferings seem purposeless to him, and he asks himself a question: Is God just?
This chapter of the Zinky Boys illustrates the paradox the participants in Afghanistan War have to face. Many confessions depict the inviolability of the military discipline and hierarchy -soldiers are given orders and they are taught to carry them out obediently. The few who refuse to go to the Afghanistan War become despised, disgraced and stigmatized as cowards and defeatists.
Most soldiers go to Afghanistan convinced they will be fighting for the benefit of their people, convinced of the righteousness of the war they are sent to. Once in the battlefield, they realize that what they believed in is far from the truth. Having returned home, they are confronted with misunderstanding and the rejection of their compatriots who accuse them of having made a mistake of agreeing to participate in the conflict, not realizing that there was often no choice to avoid it. Though still persuaded in their innocence, they inevitably begin to wonder: Is the war they were forced to fight just?
Traditional beliefs about punishing evil and rewarding good lose their foundation and, according to the confession of an anonymous soldier:
“Good never wins. Evil never ceases. A human is a scary creature. Nature is beautiful.” (p.127)
The Third Day begins with a subtitle taken from the Third Book of Moses, also known as the Book of Leviticus. It contains precise instructions that the Chosen people must obey so as to remain in God’s grace and preserve the established order in the world. However, if they flout God’s commandments, they shall receive a terrible punishment.
The rule of law does not exist in war, the covenant with God is broken, the world in peace ceases to exist, and the people suffer horrible consequences.
Citing the Book of Genesis at the beginning of the third chapter, the narrator addresses the Holy Scriptures in search for the answers to the numerous questions. One of the most troubling questions is “How much humanity is there in man?” (p. 200)
Each of the three chapters begins with a telephone conversation. We hear a man’s voice on the other end, presenting himself as a participant in the Afghanistan War. During their first conversation, he is indignant; he believes the author has no right to write about them and their destiny; that she did not witness the horrors of war, nor participated in them. His tone is threatening, full of accumulated anger. When he answers the call for the second time, he is disappointed with the treatment of those who return from war and those who sacrifice themselves- all the while being judged at home. During their last conversation, he is also burdened by many questions like the narrator. Still, he chooses life, chooses his family, chooses to leave the vicious circle that everyone who have been marked by the evil of the war gets dragged into.
The tone of the telephone conversations at the beginning of each chapter determines the tone of the whole chapter, and the author chooses the unknown soldier for the leading character. Could it be that this exact voice is central to the polyphonic weaving of this book? It could be that the anonymous soldier is the leading character of the confession he is trying to weave, but the protagonist chooses to leave his story.
“For me, the story’s over… I’m done with it… I won’t shoot myself or jump from the balcony… I want to live! To love! I’ve survived for the second time!”
Zinky Boys on trial
Svetlana Alexievich’s interlocutors are often embittered by the judgement they encountered in their society. Parents were judged because they filled their children’s heads with patriotism; soldiers were condemned for shooting and killing; girls and women who experienced the hell of Afghanistan were labeled as immoral. And the book that depicts all of them appeared on trial.
The author was accused of “altering and falsifying” stories of the “Afghans” and “their mothers”, and they filed a complaint to the District Court in Minsk Central area several years after the conversations with the plaintiffs who helped in gathering the book material had been published. Faced with the truth as presented in the book, many war participants, their closest relatives and friends were not ready to reconcile with the facts. It is difficult to accept that somebody suffered for nothing; that sons, brothers, daughters, husbands died in vain, so Svetlana Alexievich’s interviewees abandoned their statements, claiming that the author played with the facts, modified them, and adapted them to suit the purpose.
Before leaving the courtroom, after a request for her literary expertise was rejected for the second time, Svetlana Alexievich stated:
“As a human… I asked for forgiveness for the pain I caused, for this imperfect world where you often cannot walk down the street without rushing into somebody… But, as a writer… I cannot, I do not have the right to ask for forgiveness because of my book. Because of the truth!”
Aleksandra Jovičić: Born in Pristina, raised in Orahovac. Graduated from the Department for General Literature and Literature Theory at the University of Belgrade, completed her master’s studies at the Department for Serbian Literature and Language at the State University in Novi Pazar. Writes poetry, short stories and essays. Her work is present in domestic, regional and international journals and literary collections. Received the Mak Dizdar to the Young Poet award for the best unpublished poetry collection (Stolac 2017). Her collection Wanderings was published and promoted in Stolac in 2018 within the Slovo Gorčina festival. Lives and works in Lesak.
Translator, Lena Ninković: Graduated from the Department of English language studies at the University of Belgrade, Faculty of Philology. In her free time, when she’s not busy contemplating life, she writes poetry, plays the piano, and reads books. She is interested in linguistics, literature, gender studies, and translation.