Following the release of issue five of the newspaper, I was having some difficulty finding a topic I wanted to cover for my final column of the school year. I’ve covered a multitude of literary topics: authors I’ve enjoyed during the semester and social topics that concern humanities.
Finally, after talking it through with family members and friends, I realized why I was experiencing such a dramatic creative stint. During the time that I was brainstorming and reading what some may consider frivolous books, thousands were losing their lives in Ukraine. This feeling that I got was the same one that I felt during the conflict in Afghanistan and when the Covid-19 pandemic began to spread. It was the feeling of loss of control: the unshakeable feeling of not being able to do enough yet having the desire to be doing something. And despite me intently following the news and following live updates, I still could not get rid of the feeling that I was not understanding the crisis well enough.
Perhaps in an effort to regain a sense of control, or just simply to understand the crisis better, I picked up Ukrainian author Artem Chekh’s memoir: “Absolute Zero.”
“Absolute Zero” follows Chekh during and after his time serving for Ukraine during the war in Donbas, which began in 2014 and was emblematic of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine which is ongoing to this very day. While the war in Donbas occured eight years ago and had slightly different motivations for its inception, many of the themes in Chekh’s memoir parallel the conflict today; the conflicts have been fought in the same region and in response to the same power-hungry desires of Vladamir Putin.
“Absolute Zero,” like any war novel should, captures exactly what it means to be at war. Oftentimes war is almost glazed over. Despite us all knowing that war is clearly not a good thing, we seem to have the concept of war in our minds as something very distant from us- the individual. For the longest time, to me, war appeared to be something that happens very far away or perhaps very long ago. But this war between Russia and Ukraine is incredibly real and is waging in the backyards of the innocent today. That is exactly what this novel depicts. And more than anything, this novel helped remind me of that. Chekh puts names to those who have died and in describing the grittiness of war, he places audiences quite literally in the trenches alongside with him.
The specific way that Chekh describes war in his memoir particularly captured my attention. He continuously writes about the war in an authentic fashion. He writes about his unrealistic expectations going into combat — his dreams of becoming a heroic soldier who saves his country — and having to grapple with the reality of boredom, anxiety and poor living conditions while being at war. Throughout the book, the content is reliable and genuine because the readers are able to see that the author himself once had a warped sense of what war meant. This genuineness creates a sense of understanding between Chekh and his readers. They begin to understand that everyone has a difficult time understanding what war is really like, unless they are the ones doing the fighting themselves. Because of Chekh’s intimate storytelling, readers too begin to picture themselves fighting in a war whose reality feels like a far cry from heroism.
The best any of us can do in times like these and the best solution I can offer to readers, is to educate oneself on the conflict.Maddy Hammett
Beyond that, Chekh details the routines and the daily life of a soldier, asking readers to consider the feeling of having liberties stripped from their daily lives. In creating chapters centered around his routine during war, Chekh creates a sense of anticipation in his readers. And beyond just setting the tone, he again establishes that the reality of war is much different than what we see in movies. War isn’t just physical combat; war is also oftentimes psychological combat. These routines are a continuation of Chekh’s main point that war is in no way a glamorous or heroic event. Chekh, in describing his day-to-day life, shows perhaps the least digestible aspect of war: having your life completely changed for the worse.
These past couple of months I have struggled in understanding the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Making sense of large, stressful events such as these often are simply impossible. Performing easy daily tasks becomes seemingly monotonous and useless when the gravity of the outside world sets in. In being a bystander during a war, it increasingly becomes more difficult to gain any sense of control on the events unfolding before you. After reading this I can tell you with all honesty that I didn’t feel much better about the state of the conflict. Nor did I suddenly feel an increase in self-importance. Reading this book will not somehow, magically dismantle the facism that has spearheaded this conflict. The best any of us can do in times like these, and the best solution I can offer to readers, is to educate yourselves on the conflict. In doing so, I cannot promise you any solace, but you may grow to be a more understanding informed person in the process.