Thursday, March 24, 2005

"Crying Wolf" by Vanora Bennett. Review.

"Crying Wolf: the Return of War to Chechnya" by Vanora Bennett.

Five months ago I found this book at an English/American Bookstore on Myasnitskaya. I read only a few pages from it at the store and was immediately swept away by its uncommonness. Unlike most books on Chechnya it was incredibly well-researched, sincere, detailed and not one-sided at all. Vanora covers 600 pages with descriptions of her life in Moscow and travels to the Caucasus: interviews and private talks, historic references, quotes from the classics, personal opinions and opinions of other people, newspaper clippings. Nothing is left behind. The best part is certainly Vanora’s epic-like personal accounts of her highly dangerous trips to war-torn regions in Armenia, Karabakh, Ingushetia and Chechnya. I read the whole book in two days.
But it also brought the sense of uncertainty, like it was not really completed. Something was missing – the moral, probably. If you skip Vanora’s personal opinions and just read her detailed accounts of what is going on, you would become a misanthrope. There’s this vicious cycle of infinitely growing racism, blind hate, madness, blood, death, suffering that carries away everyone: Russians, Chechens, Osetians, Armenians and Azeris alike. Nice and peaceful men are turning into blood-thirsty monsters. Loathing and thirst to revenge make otherwise rational people think like fanatical madmen. In Vanora’s book there are no good or bad guys in the war – almost all think and act like wild animals, gloating with joy when they win or whining maliciously when they lose. It’s impossible to take sides, to be pro-Russian or pro-Chechen, or anywhere in between. What’s the moral of the story? Is it the idea that when any stable social system is destroyed people loose all the humaneness they had? Is it the idea that any war, be it fair or not, irretrievably destroys the human soul? Is Vanora the follower of Leo Tolstoy’s theory of non-resistance to evil? Tolstoy illustrated his ideas with the story “Hadji Murat” that I already wrote about. Actually Tolstoy’s theory is not as idealistic as it sounds. Mahatma Ghandi, a passionate follower of Tolstoy, made India independent with the help of it. He was confident that once you resist evil by force or violence, your soul is damned. Isn’t Iraq or Chechnya a good proof that he was right?
Incredible, but Vanora is taking sides – she is definitely on the side of Chechens, Russophile turned Russophobe just in one day. That makes her book so weird. I simple couldn’t understand why. Her descriptions of Chechens gave absolutely no clue for her reasons.
Three days ago I took the book again and read several random pages from different parts. And I think I solved the mystery. Vanora is totally devoid of empathy, the human talent to feel what other people feel. She is emotionally handicapped like there are musically handicapped people. What is music for everyone, for them is simply noise made with a vast variety of instruments. Such people can try hard to understand what’s there in music that makes others dance, laugh or cry, why this kind of noise is so popular but another is called trashy. They can take great pains to decode music. They can actually go so far as to learn to play music but even then they couldn’t get it – why people listen to the noise I make. That’s what Vanora is trying really hard, driven by incredibly reckless curiosity, - to decipher the noise that other people call emotions. In this quest she rushes without doubt to any region where there’s war and eagerly interviews people who just undergone unbelievable sufferings.
Vanora is very observant. She covers pages with descriptions of people she met to the minutest detail: every wink, gesture, smile and change in voice. Nothing is left unnoticed. Sometimes I wanted to say, “Stop here, Vanora, I already got what you mean!” but she goes on and on and on. Like a musically handicapped person painstakingly dissects the noise to every single sign and note, then looks stupidly at them and says, “Hey, that was polka!” No, that was not polka. That was rock’n’roll. It doesn’t take so much pain for an ordinary person to see the difference. Vanora covers five pages with extraordinary vivid and detailed description of her bus ride to Karabakh with broken-hearted, crying, trying to be understood Armenian refugees and then unexpectedly she goes, “Hey, they were manipulative!” No, they were not.
This emotional backwardness is probably the reason behind so many contradictions in the book. For example, she describes a talk with her Russian “friend” and makes a conclusion – this man is a racist. That’s right. I agree. Then some fifty pages later she describes an almost identical talk with a Chechen and concludes – this man was hurt so much by Russians. No, Vanora. That man is also a racist. He’s as disgusting as his Russian counterpart. A truly pro-Chechen writer, like Politkovskaya, would simply omit such an interview from the book. She would certainly see that it doesn’t fit and breaks the integrity of the book but Vanora doesn’t get it. There are dozens and dozens of such contradictions throughout the story. They make the book so much misanthropic – all humans are beasts. Although Vanora leaves her opinions here and there – Russians are evil but Chechens are noble – but one simply doesn’t believe her. My recommendations – skip Vanora’s personal comments and you get the most detailed, well-researched and un-biased book about the war in Chechnya.


William Johnson said...

Vanora is an observer of the human condition and in your opinion she handles detail extremely well. Possibly she seems to lack the ability to respond emotionally on the tragedy her subjects have endured because she is determined to remain only an observer and not a judge. Although to remain in this isolated frame of mind through 600 pages is unusual.

Konstantin said...

That's exactly the problem with the book. Vanora is a very good observer and a very incompetent, emotionally hadicapped judge.

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Mister Kiffer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mister Kiffer said...

The reason no judgement is passed is because it is impossible for an American to take sides. I find that many Americans, myself included, view oth sides as wrong to an extent. We cannot side with the Chechens because of terrorism and cannot side with Putin because he is too autocratic and gives asylum to men like Kyrgyzstan Prez Akayev.

Can you recomend any recent Russianfiction that might be avalible in English? I'm fresh out of Tolstoys, Bulgakovs, Dostoevskys, Checkovs, and Gogols.

((Any Russian Poetry aswell? I can't stand the American stuff (no Pasternak please (although Zhivago was great) I don't care for him, to much nature)))

Konstantin said...

2 Kiffer
Among recent Russian fiction authors, I think, Pelevin is the best. Try his short stories first.

Krisa said...

Hi Konstantin. Great site. Hopefully I am allowed to post this link.

Kiffer: I found the following site rather good for some literature althought you have probably seen most of it, check it out.

Lee Oh Tall Stoy said...

i think your review is a tad unfair, and I think it sidesteps the possibility that both sides are not equally bad but that there actually is an aggressor and a victim here. In this instance the aggressor has been Putin's Russia and the victim Chechnya. Within that context men can and will turn to beasts in times of war, but it seems odd that you ask about 'the moral' of the narrative and yet fail to address the sheer criminal act of Russia denying Chechens their autonomy and how this has a precedent that stretches back a few hundred years. If there is a moral to pull from the story of Chechnya, then surely that is it. That should also explain for you then your own lack of empathy for Chechens here who are clear victims of an indefensible national aggression. If we are to talk about a lack of empathy then surely saying both sides are to blame in conflicts of one sided aggression is the lack of empathy that should really scare us all.

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