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Berkeley Bustard, Afghan Sucker

A few weeks ago, in the pages of the BEAST's sister paper, the Moscow-based eXile, I published a review of Afghanistan: The Hidden War by journalist Artyom Borovik. In it, I asked readers if they knew of any Russian soldiers' first-person accounts of the Afghan war. Nobody did. In fact, the only responses I got were from readers hoping I'd heard something new.

But then I got a remarkable email letter from one Vladislav Tamarov, who wanted me to know that he had written just such a book. Tamarov's account of his career as writer of war memoir is worth quoting at some length:

"Hello, My name is Vladislav Tamarov . I am an author of "Afghanistan : a Russian Solder's Story ", What is a reprint of "Afghanistan : Soviet Vietnam ".The rison why I am sending you this e-mail is simple. I served in Soviet Airborne Special Forces , in Afghanistan .621 days of war. 217 days in combat missions . During the war I was stupid enough, to take pictures ( I was professional photographer before I was drafted). When I returned home , I found my own shrink -- writing . But in USSR I get in troubles for telling the truth about the war in Afghanistan , and with help from Vietnam Veterans of America , I moved to US . In 1992 my book was published . But then , only few people cared about this conflict , and in 1993 my publisher stopped the tour , and in 1994 my book was "DEAD ". Until September 11 I was working in PIZZA!!! "

Tamarov's command of English prose may have been imperfect, but I liked his story--liked, above all, the raw literary ego and outrage sizzling in that all-caps, three-exclamation mark "PIZZA!"--You were working in PIZZA, Vladislav Evgenievich? Surely not pizza! Anything but pizza!

I liked too the fact that Tamarov didn't bother to conceal the fact that September 11 was good news for him. If only a few others would admit as much. If only Bill Bennett, whose foul pamphlet Why We Fight... is full of the same delight at the morally cleansing effect of the WTC attacks, would come clean and admit that September 11 was the best thing that ever happened to him. If only the Republican National Committee would admit that they cried for joy when the towers collapsed, their worries at rigging the reelection of a beady-eyed moron suddenly vaporized like superheated concrete.

As Tamarov explains excitedly, his abortive literary career popped up again the minute the towers went down:

"...everybody was telling me, that I have to forget about my book, and be like everybody else ! Then , you understand what happened: In few days every single copy available, was sold . In few weeks , I had to choose between 2 publishes to reprint my book : Ten speed press ( they small, but promised to put reprint on the shelves within 2 weeks ); ore " Penguin " ( big , more money ,a lot more). I was stupid to trust my agent to go with TEN SPEED ( only 3 month later I found out ,that he was friend with the owner for 30 years )."

Now that's a story that brings back memories. You see, Ten Speed Press is a Berkeley outfit. I remember the plaque marking the birth of Ten Speed press on Bancroft Avenue, just across from campus. What Ten Speed did to this innocent Blue Beret is a classic Berkeley story: "All the promises was broken , I spend more money than I made ( publisher decided not to pay my expenses, what is against the contract )."

Dear old Berkeley! If only someone would apply the Atta urban renewal scheme to a nice central spot in downtown Berkeley--say the intersection of Bancroft and Telegraph! Forty years of grime, conceit, and foamed coffee going up in a cloud of jet-napalm!

Nah, never happen; nobody can overcome the denim-and-suede mafia of Berkeley. But this crazy Russian paratrooper ends his letter with a promise to try: "BUT this time I am not going to let my book die!!! I am ready to fight for it !!! PS : This is a fight of my life now ! I am not going to let some rich ,lazy , lying bustard to get away with murdering my book ! I guess , he never steeled from Airborne Soldier before ! Are you ready to help ? Are you ready for a ride ???"

Hell yes I'm ready! We're ALL ready! We'd like nothing better than to see a SpetsNats veteran unleashed on that Berkeley "bustard"! In fact, "bustard" is no mere mispronunciation but a brilliant coinage, a very apt description of the sort of people who run businesses like Ten Speed Press. A bustard is a big, dust-colored bird which favors dry, beige landscapes. That's Berkeley, all right! So nothing would please me more, Mister Tamarov, than to help you hunt the Great Bustards who lied to you.

I'd love to help Tamarov sell more copies and show up the Berkeley Bustards who conned him. Alas, the best that can be said for A Russian Soldier's Story is that it is the only, and therefore the best, Afghan War memoir available in English.

It's a slight book, less than 200 pages. Most of the book consists of large black-and-white photos Tamarov took in Afghanistan. There are only a few thousand words of text, much of it not much more than captions for the photos.

This might have worked, if the text were a bit more interesting. Tamarov can tell a good story, as his account of Ten Speed's betrayal shows. But the subject of War pushes him into Sovok sentimentality and cliche. He describes "an officer with a smiling face and sad eyes," exclaims, "What can any war give, aside from such results?" mentions that "...[the war] had seemed to be some sort of terrible dream" and explains that "Afghanistan taught me to believe actions, not words."

But there's worse; there's the poetic frills with which Tamarov very unwisely burdens his text. These consist of rolling periods in the worst declamatory style, often enclosing childish paradoxes--cheap gaudy twists of phrase. One particularly irritating caption accompanies a posed, melodramatic shot of Tamarov standing in a desert after a jump, his parachute laid out behind him like a ball gown. He stares at the camera grimly like some damned existentialist poster boy.

That was bad enough, but the accompanying text really made me grimace. Rather than say something interesting about where the jump happened or how it went, Tamarov's caption ends with a grand Roman period:

"Two weeks after my first jump, I was flown to Afghanistan...

...Where I lived, to kill. Where I killed, to live."

Yes, yes: kill to live, live to kill--the kind of braintwister which probably wowed'em in Brussels circa 1921. This sort of melodramatic chiasmus, which occurs quite early in the text, was enough to make me grit my teeth and turn the page, hoping Tamarov would settle down, as many amateur writers do, once they've coughed up a few trills and flourishes. 'Twas not to be. On the very next page, there's another damned prose poem in the provincial-existential mode. Worse still--and this is simply unforgivable--this clunky paradox contains the word "abyss," preceded by three dots:

"In boot camp, when I made my first jump, I was terrified to take the first step out of the airplane... into the abyss.

When I took off for Afghanistan from boot camp, I was terrified to take the first step into the plane... into the abyss."

Geddit? Geddit? First he's afraid to step OUT of the plane into the abyss, then he's scared to go INTO the plane because it'll take him to Afghanistan and that's a bigger abyss!

It's embarrassing just reading drivel like this. And don't tell me I'm picking on a simple soldier who knows nothing about literary writing. The trouble with most amateur writers is not that they don't understand literary form but that they're possessed by cheap, used literary forms and haven't taken the trouble to think about them or grow wary of them let alone replace them.

If Tamarov wrote like a "simple Soviet soldier," satisfied to tell the reader WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED, he might have produced a great book. Instead, like every other "simple" writer who ever exploited this coy persona, Tamarov is all too literary. Specifically, he is enchanted by a whole toolkit of mid-twentieth-century cliches, the cheap paradoxes that will strike readers circa 2050 as risible, at best.

For example, when you hiss in annoyance at the "abyss" poem and flip a few pages forward, you see a pretty decent picture of a Soviet helicopter coming down for a landing and look to the caption to see what was going on. And here's what you get:

" 'Let them be quick,' he said quietly, staring fixedly at the sky."

"He"? Who the Hell is "he"? Tamarov is trying for a quick-cut cinematic prose technique here, but it doesn't come off. You gather, finally, that "he" is a wounded comrade waiting for the "copters" to pick him up. But you don't find out what happened to him until near the end of the book, a hundred pages on, when Tamarov suddenly resumes this anecdote.

A good rule for the aspiring memoirist is this: what would happen if you tried this shit when you were telling the story to your friends? What would happen if you started a story, "I remember holding this guy who'd been wounded. He was listening for the medevac chopper. Then he lost consciousness again...." If you were dumb enough to finish the story there, with the intention of finishing it a couple of hours later, your storytelling license would soon be revoked.

Good memoirists tell stories to their friends; bad memoirists write compositions for their English teachers. Tamarov, unfortunately, is more concerned with impressing his old teachers than with finishing his war stories. And that's fatal.

If only Afghanistan HAD taught Tamarov to believe in action rather than words--rather than this sort of verbal cheese, at any rate. Unfortunately, Afghanistan actually taught him to form grand phrases. This is practically the ONLY way you can ruin a war memoir. As I mentioned in a recent review of Vietnam memoirs, almost any combat veteran with a good memory, a tape recorder, and a sufficiently ruthless editor can crank out a decent war memoir. But only if you talk and talk to the machine until all the grand phrases have drained from you.

Then there's the translation. I hesitate to call it that. It's more like the product of one of those first-generation machine-translation programs. Tamarov's English, as exemplified in his email to me, is much more compelling than the work of the three (!) people credited with the English translation. Every sentence contains an irritating mistake or two. This sort of just-slightly-wrong wording grows with compound interest; after ten pages you feel like you've been pushing through sawgrass, itching from a hundred tiny scratches. Sentences like this pile up: "Through the window the lights of my city were visible. The city where I hadn't been for two long, hard years."

Maybe Tamarov's original was just like this, with the awkward passive ("were visible"), lame sentence-fragment, clumsy negation ("where I hadn't been") followed by the maudlin cliche "two long, hard years." If so, somebody should've smacked him and sent him home to do another draft. But even if every graceless sentence is Tamarov's, the hacks who translated Tamarov's text into English are accomplices in a sustained assault on the English-speaking reader.

Oh, and of course there's the Vietnam connection. This book was first published as Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam, and is full of facile and unconvincing parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan. Tamarov writes with the breathless America-philia of Russia circa 1992, praising the Vietnam monument, the rehab centers for Vietnam vets, and going into long greeting-card orations about the beauty of international friendship with "the American people, who, I'm sure, like the majority of [Russians], sincerely want peace and hate war."

Who says they do? Americans rather like war, as long as it isn't happening to them. In fact, it's rather difficult to think of a tribe that truly hated war. Why do you think your book is such a hot item, Tamarov? Not because we Americans "hate war."

If Tamarov had dropped his fatuous Soviet platitudes long enough to see what was really going on in Afghanistan, he could have written an extraordinary book. This is not such a book. Even the photos are dull things, posed and melodramatic. It's no accident that Tamarov won a Soviet prize with the cover shot of himself and an Afghan collaborator standing tall on a dry Afghan hillside, facing the camera bravely. He renounces the caption which won him his prize: "They defend the Revolution!" But Tamarov is still falling for "words," slogans, maudlin phrases cut out of old speeches. Mark Twain has some hard words to say about the alleged value of experience, and Tamarov's book illustrates the cynical point all too well. Suckered at home, suckered at Berkeley, and still a sucker for every pop-song cliche, poor Tamarov stands not as a witness to the horrors of war but the grim American proverb: there's one born every minute.

 
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