Book Review

Boys in Zinc by Svetlana Alexievich

fell orf my bike boohoo

cw: body image

Svetlana Alexievich is in the news at the moment because Svetlana Alexievich is a 5G Truther.

“What does that mean?” my lover asked, as I scoffed the phrase out while walking the dog through the Springtime, lockdowned city. As I tried to explain, I realised how deep down the rabbithole I have fallen on Twitter.

Something I don’t mention much on Triumph of the Now is my “side-project” (side to what?), the satirical conspiracy-theory-focused independent publishing house, TRUTHER PRESS. With a man I know called “Sean Preston”, I discovered last year that the content checks for print-on-demand titles sold via Amazon are non-existent, so “Sean Preston” and I began producing and selling strange books, and trying (and failing) to promote them via a Twitter account that engages with conspiracy theorists.

As a result of this Twitter account, my awareness of weird nonsense impossible theories – e.g. “5G masts transmit radiation waves that cause the symptoms known as “COVID-19” – are heightened. This insane 5G nonsense was the particular one espoused by Alexievich, and it inspired me to pick up a book of hers I’ve had lying around for several months.

///

It’s now three weeks later.

I keep starting these posts and then stopping, often breaking off in the middle of a sentence in the hope that it’ll make it easier to jump back in at some imaginary later date when I’m somehow more balanced, more able to concentrate, more stable.

Obviously, the weeks are passing and nothing is changing.

I finally got a Nintendo Switch last week and spent a few days joyfully playing Super Mario Odyssey full-time, but in those days I did nothing I would consider “constructive” and now I’ve had my few days of pre-planned, pre-forgiven fun, I am back with a backlog of emails and messages to respond to, I haven’t come any closer to finishing/finalising any of the numerous books I’m working on/with/around.

Christ christ christ.

I needed a break but I need some progress.

///

I just fell off a bicycle, in the street.

Because I feel fat and disgusting and look at myself in the mirror and feel like throwing up and even my comedy moustache has stopped amusing me now-

Because I feel fat and disgusting and hideous, I have been cycling every day now, every every day

every day

I hate exercising, it feels like a colossal waste of time, in a way that reading and watching good television/cinema and even tbh playing Nintendo don’t.

These activities are all things I enjoy, even if they are acts as similarly passive and unproductive as exercise.

Nothing is created by me when I watch ten films by the French director Louis Malle, just as nothing is created-

My therapist (now phone only) keeps insisting I must learn how to not be so judgemental towards myself, so unwilling to count this blog as not a waste of time. Everything is a waste of time, though, everything is just an activity slotted in to pass the time-

I cycle because with gyms closed I cannot do cross-trainer and HBO (the only way I’ve ever been able to regularly exercise without self-contempt in my entire life) and all the times I have tried jogging or yoga I’ve ended up, very quickly, having a panic attack.

I can do cycling, which probably means it isn’t actually very good exercise or something, it probably means that it’s doing nothing at all to improve the shape of my shit disgusting body-

But I can’t do cycling, can I, this accident proves.

The only other time I can remember falling off a bicycle was during my 2016-2017 annus horribilis, when another cyclist rode into my bike in the City of London, near Blackfriars. He caved in one of the wheels, and I carried the bike the rest of my journey to work in Bermondsey, to a cycle repair shop there. No one helped me, no one commiserated with me. The other cyclist just wheeled off, his bike fine.

Falling off a bike today, I felt the same. I was trying to turn left on what is “usually” (i.e. pre-COVID) a busy road, and when I cycled across the tram tracks as a shallower angle than was sensible, the wheel slipped on the wet metal (it was raining) and I fell down, landing on my right elbow, my right knee, my right hip.

I wheeled the bike back to the docking station (it was one of the city cycle hire scheme bikes, like the “B*r*s Bikes” in London) and plugged it back in. I stood still, calming myself away from a panic attack, and then I tried cycling again, as if to continue with my planned route. I got a few blocks away and then the pain in my knee and my hip started increasing more and more and more and so I cycled back, using only my left leg to turn the pedals (and my right side just to balance the bike) and I came home, crying.

I’m now sat in my kitchen, without trousers, with an ice pack stuffed into my underwear on my hip and a second one wrapped up in a tea towel tied around my knee. As time passes, tbh, the pain is getting worse. I want to try and go and exercise again later, but I think I will still be in pain.

I’m so disgusting, I have to exercise. I have to I have to I have to

///

Boys In Zinc is about the Soviet-Afghan war, about the classic imperial tropes used to lure young men to fight an unwinnable war, and about the consequences of trauma and deceit and tense boredom.

Alexievich, writing in the same reportage style as in Chernobyl Prayer, dives into the voices of soldiers who served and survived, of the widows and bereaved mothers of the dead, of doctors and nurses and scientists and other Russian staff who worked in the warzone without being military, and always the same massive problems are repeated: the ready access to heroin, the torture and dismemberment frequently performed by the guerilla “enemies”, the confused narrative given to the soldiers that they must protect their homeland, Russia, by murdering and stealing the homeland of other people.

It was messy, it was Russia’s (or the USSR’s) Vietnam war: pointless, impossible, a loss of life on both sides and a serious financial burden. The cost of this war is often cited as one of the reasons for the Soviet collapse that came shortly after their withdrawal from this war.

It’s harrowing and emotive, as well as informative and informed, and I’d personally recommend Boys In Zinc as an important way to plug a gap in ones political historical consciousness that I’m sure isn’t mine alone.

///

The end of this edition, this translation, of the book includes an extra chapter about the fallout from the book’s original publication, whereby the mothers of several dead soldiers tried to sue Alexievich for slandering them and their sons by implying/revealing the pointlessness and waste of the war, as well as the serious PTSD and opioid addiction that resulted from it.

It was fascinating to see people react so strangely to the tragedy depicted by Alexievich’s words, and the implication that these plaintiffs were backed by the government doesn’t so much trickle as flood through the passages included here.

I don’t know, though, if this simple explanation – Boys in Zinc made the Russian government look bad, the Russian government wanted the book silenced – feels right. Trying to ban a book is the surest way to increase its popularity/readership, and I think the people in charge of ideologically influencing millions of people would have known this, and that only painful, extreme, grief would make someone believe that the way to honour a lost loved one is to attempt to silence an internationally-acclaimed writer whose depiction of their life and death doesn’t demean or mock them, rather draws attention to gross, statewide, mismanagement.

Anyway.

The title refers to the coffins used to ship dead soldiers back to Russia from Afghanistan, and the whole thing is about waste and loss. It’s a beautiful, haunting book and really we should all have already read it.

Even if she’s a 5G Truther now, Alexievich’s work has lost nothing with the passage of time. A hard recommend.

Obvs it’s in translation; the translator’s name is Andrew Bromfield.


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