Lucky Breaks – Ukrainian dating in the shadow of war

It is a strange and cruel irony that some of the worst fighting seen during the conflict in eastern Ukraine since 2014 took place in the town of Shchastya, a name that literally translates to “happiness” or ” luck “. Yet in this hybrid war of gray areas and disinformation, where one side supports separatist groups while posing as a non-participant, such surreal irony is perhaps characteristic.

At Yevgenia Belorusets strokes of luck, a similar sense of surrealism abounds. This collection of immediate and eccentric stories, first published in Ukraine in 2018 and now available in the lucid English translation by Eugene Ostashevsky, presents a series of parallel encounters with Ukrainian women – manicurists, florists, cosmetologists, gamers cards, even a witch – whose life took, often imperceptibly, in the conflict in Donbass.

A florist in Donetsk seems to be “disappearing” after the destruction of the building she lives in, while her shop is “refurbished as a warehouse for propaganda material” and her neighbors say she has simply gone “to the fields”.

In Anthracite, a secessionist city-state ruled by a Cossack military commander, “hairdressers, manicurists and other workers at the Pyramid Beauty Salon” are referred to a magistrate, recalling the summary justice that would have been served in the Luhansk region, to determine how “mischievous ideas and thoughts grew and took root in [their] heads”.

And in an unnamed town, women refugees in a basement study their horoscopes in a local newspaper to decide when they can venture above ground. “Pisces could be sure of their well-being and safety from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. that day,” they read and believe.

Documenting the bizarre twists and fragmentary turns inherent in these stories of loss and trauma, Belorusets draws inspiration from the grotesqueness of Nikolai Gogol’s fantasies and the absurdist humor of Daniil Kharms, whose haunting vignettes responded so well to the terror and the seeming unreality of life in the Soviet Union. Yet, in the face of the present and imminent risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, these combinations produce a particularly disturbing awareness of the myriad ways in which the imagination walks hand in hand with violent reality.

In describing the effects of one of the most brutal conflicts to occur during the era of fake news, and to be helped in part by it, strokes of luck poses essential questions about the ethical implications of blurring the line between fiction and reality. “Every document is partly a lie,” says Belorusets, challenging us, by analogy, to see the truth in his fictions. It’s a perverse but effective logic – one that lays bare the device of reality so fabricated at the heart of war.

This same perverse and surreal reasoning also informs the thinking of the characters in Belorusets. In “Philosophy”, a disgruntled young man whose unit is stationed near the poorly starred city of Happiness fears that the end of hostilities will force him to reconnect with an even less desirable reality. It looks like he has nothing to worry about. As of this writing, the “frozen” stalemate of the past few years is rapidly unfreezing under the heat of troop maneuvers and escalating political rhetoric. Once again Shchastya found himself under artillery bombardment.

strokes of luck by Yevgenia Belorusets, translated by Eugene Ostashevsky, New Directions, £10.98/$14.95, 112 pages

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