“This is the Most Significant Thing to Ever Happen to Us”—Some Thoughts on Oleksandr Mykhed’s “The Language of War”

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Olexandr Mykhed is one of the few Ukrainian authors to write not one but two books since Russia has launched its large-scale invasion. His fairy tale titled The Cat, the Cock, and the Kitchen Cabinet was published in December 2022. The plot revolves around a now-legendary kitchen unit from Borodyanka which has remained mounted on a wall in an apartment, despite the entire room being destroyed as a result of a Russian missile strike. His new book The Calling Sign for Job: Chronicles of the Invasion was published in June 2023 (The book is to be published in English in 2024 under the title The Language of War). The book was a bestseller during the Arsenal Book Fair, an annual international festival organised for intellectuals and creators.

The book is cross-genre, but can be categorised as diary literature. It includes 20 separate diary entries which describe the first thirteen months of the full-scale invasion against the backdrop of the author’s innermost thoughts and feelings. The rest of the book consists of several essays, four interviews with the author’s close circle of people, several pages on Russian war crimes in Ukraine, a preface, and concluding remarks. “The book is about a chunky part of reality which is left unexplored,” Mykhed commented in an interview to the Sense book store. 

In the past eighteen months, more urgent calls to document the war are heard across the country. Journalists are not the only ones who should take heed; any accidental witness to the Russian war crimes should keep this in mind. A large body of documented evidence for the Hague criminal tribunal will ensure accountability for Russia’s war of aggression. 

Documenting evidence is also about practical memory. Our daily memories of the war are extremely malleable. In time, what we once thought or believed about the war develops into something new and different. How we document the war now will shape whether and how its history will persist in the generations to come.

For example, the German historical tradition includes little to nothing about the bombing of Hamburg, Dresden, Cologne, and other cities by the Allied forces. The archival evidence on these dramatic events is scant. There is very little photo evidence, but most importantly almost no memoirs and diaries have survived. The story of how the Allies unleashed their revenge on the country became a taboo topic for most of the German nation which had once sanctioned the destruction of cities in Europe. In this respect, documenting the evidence is part of dealing with the trauma. Instead of hiding from reality by just sticking our heads in the sand and hoping that it will pass us by, we need to face the painful reality and learn to accept it.

But when we share the truth about our country and how it’s being pillaged by the Russian invaders, we often forget that our very core suffers as well. 

At moments like these, we feverishly try to find ways to give: like make donations to the military, join the army, do volunteer work, and support meaningful projects and business ventures. We strive to be among the multitude of people and things, but we forget about who we really are. Instead, we need to stop and look inside our soul and reflect on what is going on with our mind and spirit. But we consciously avoid staring at the gaping wound inside. 

During the Second World War Jean Améry, an assimilated Austrian Jew was imprisoned in a concentration camp where he was tortured by the Gestapo. For almost nineteen years after the war, he never openly discussed his traumatic experience. And only in 1964 Améry began working on his book titled At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities, which is a collection of essays where Améry discusses his personal experience of torture. Améry continued to promote humanitarian ideals; he explored the nature of nazi ideology and antisemitism until his tragic death from suicide in 1978. 

Naturally, documenting the war experiences can be overwhelming, and it requires a certain amount of bravery to be able to face the trauma and to be able to talk about it. And The Calling Sign for Job presents an unvarnished account of one man’s journey and captures life in the moment. 

“Political essays are not for me; I have never done them—I abhor the genre. It’s overly dramatic and filled with emotion. And it lacks detail. Such literature is fleeting. But right now, I work to capture the moment. When the nation is united. And the only language widely understood today is the language of war.” 

Right before the war, Mykhed together with his wife Olena and their family dog Lisa lived in a townhouse in Hostomel city, Kyiv region. Mykhed’s parents lived in Bucha. On the 24th of February the whole family woke up to the sound of swirling Russian helicopters. On the very first day, Mykhed together with his wife evacuated to Chernivtsi in the west of the country. His parents stayed under occupation for two more weeks. His townhouse in Hostomel was shelled. The family flat in Bucha was damaged by an exploding shell. What do you feel when your life is a roller coaster? What type of literature is produced by a writer when his whole life is a dangerous experiment? Notably, Mykhed’s first entry to his diary was made on the 24th-26th of February immediately following the invasion. 

The book may seem jumbled, incomplete, and poorly structured. For example, it’s not clear why the author chose thirteen months of war as his time frame; a year would have been much more logical. There is a lot to say about the book, but no one will ever say that it lacks sincerity.

“At 34 years of age and at the 11th month of the invasion I believe that I will never breathe easy again. I realise that I want very little from life. All I want is for them to die. And feel totally numb.”

Mykhed embraces emotion, his writing is brimming with excitement, he makes loud statements and proclamations—but he describes his own feelings in the only way he can. His stream of consciousness carries quotes which have the potential to become proverbial. Such is the language of war; it’s precise and unassuming. It’s both simple and effective, basic and profound. 

Chillingly, I can precisely relate to the events described by the author. Again and again, I recognise myself in Mykhed and see Mykhed as a regular person.

The author has recorded our communal experience, something which we are still afraid to put into words. In immense emotional detail, the book describes Kyiv’s intense stand against the advancing Russian troops, the discovery of killing fields in Bucha, the Russian terrorist air-strike on the evacuation trains in Kramatorsk, the long black-outs, and those surreal moments when the sound of a shot down Russian missile catches you in a busy café. Mykhed takes the reader on his own life journey which is 13 months in the making. The writer and his reader move in concert by warping along the two matching lines—sometimes the lines approach one another and sometimes they intersect. 

Since the start of the war, The Calling Sign for Job is the first attempt to trace such a line and position it in space and time. One is overwhelmed by the whole intensity of events which happened in the time frame, and it’s difficult to name the exact dates signifying specific major events. 

“Sometime between the 60th and 80th day since the invasion it occurred to me that time is just one indistinct blob of matter without the specific dates.”

Quite possibly the book will perish in time and within a few years it will be forgotten as literature, but it will continue to live on as an important historical testament. There will be other publications which describe the war experience, and they will be more powerful and influential, and hopefully, the new texts will be more comprehensive, refined, and will include more literature. 

For example, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which is one of the most influential anti-war novels ever written about the experiences of the First World War, was first published in 1928, ten years after the war. A writer needs to distance themselves from the event so that the war becomes a backdrop for other social topics important to the narrator. Michael Ondaatje, a Sri Lankan-born Canadian novelist in his English Patient introduces a character named Kip, an Indian sapper with the British military during the Second World War. Ondaatje follows the postcolonial discourse popular in the 1990s when the novel was first published. Jonathan Littell’s first novel written in French, the Kindly Ones (2006) is narrated by Maximilien Aue, a gay German man who also happens to be an officer in the SS. Time heals wartime trauma and introduces new meanings and the topic comes alive as a result. 

In contrast to literature written decades after the historical events described therein, The Calling Sign for Job will be an important historical document, a memory aid, and an emotional support during the war. Today, we already have some of the most significant, tragically sincere and raw texts on the Russo-Ukrainian war. 

On the morning of the 10th of October when Mykhed together with his wife boarded a train back to Kyiv from Chernivtsi, the capital was hit by multiple missile strikes. One missile hit its target close to the train station. It just so happened that I boarded the same train next day, and safely arrived at the train station; as I was walking home across the city centre, I saw teams of city workers fixing the damaged traffic lights and cleaning shattered glass off the pavement. The Khanenko art museum, Kyiv picture gallery, teacher’s university, and compounds of the Shevchenko university where Mykhed once studied were targeted in the attack. In this same manner, the author directly relates to these events and understands their hidden meaning. The missiles’ ultimate target is Ukrainian culture and tradition. A hundred years ago, the teacher’s university housed the first national parliament of the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the monument to Mykhailo Hrushevsky, the Republic’s founder and a prominent historian, stands close to the historical building. But the city has readied for the brutal attack—the art collections were evacuated and the city’s monuments were sandbagged. And most importantly, historical memory is “invulnerable to the enemy missile attacks,” says Mykhed. As a nation, Ukraine has survived numerous attempts on its life: some of Ukraine’s most prominent national leaders and opinion makers have died in assassination plots and the country’s material culture is still being purposefully destroyed. But none of these attempts have been fully successful, and the nation’s historical memory has turned out to be more resilient than the enemy hoped. Every time the empire stifled Ukraine’s nation building process, the country found new ways to bounce back. When the Russian emperor Alexander II banned the use of the Ukrainian language in the Ems Ukaz, the publishers from central Ukraine cooperated with the publishing houses in Galicia which at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. During the Soviet era, when censorship was rife, Ukrainian literature went underground and produced publications through the unofficial samizdat press.

Thanks to Mykhed’s background in humanitarian sciences, he artfully draws parallels between the Russo-Ukrainian war, the events of the Second World War, and the fall of Yugoslavia. He discusses the long historical origins of conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Mykhed explains at length why Russian combatants and non-combatants bear joint responsibility for what is going on in Ukraine and not just Putin, as the country’s leader, which is a loud and clear message to the audience. Still, he feels disappointed in literature: “Neither literature nor culture are strong enough to protect me or my family.” That’s right, literature does not protect from Russian brutality. Kyiv’s historical monuments cannot protect the city from air strikes. A fervent prayer cannot raise the dead Ukrainians massacred in the enemy attacks. But it does not stop Mykhed from writing and recording his emotions together with what is going on around him. Because at the time of war, literature becomes therapy. It can heal wounds and manage the trauma, take stock of the pain and emotions inside, and help you understand that you are not alone in your suffering. Ultimately, this is the underlying message of Mykhed’s The Calling Sign for Job. To sum it up in a quote from the author himself—this war is “the most significant thing to ever happen to us” and the message it brings will inform our memory of the war for generations.