Order for £11.99 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030. Portobello £14.99
The Sky Wept Fire: My Life as a Chechen Freedom Fighter by Mikail Eldin, trans by Anna Gunin - book review
Rebel with a cause powerfully portrays the horrors of war
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014.
Thursday 12 December 2013
Mikhail Eldin was an arts journalist in Chechnya before he became a freedom fighter. This memoir on his conversion from a witness of war into a participant poses a difficult central question: can a journalist reporting a war stay emotionally neutral and politically unbiased to the barbarity witnessed?
Eldin, for his part, consciously gives up on the ambition for journalistic objectivity. Rushing onto the streets as the tanks roll in, he is stunned by the first rumblings of war in 1994("This was not yet my war, and I still hadn't taken sides. I was trying to remain an impartial observer") before he becomes a keen, critical war reporter, and then a freedom fighter who never quite puts away his reporter's notepad.
In fact, the writing of this powerful, lyrical and disturbing memoir became part of his freedom fighter's quest to record the unaccounted deaths of his comrades, as well as the torture and imprisonment that he and others endured.
The book, which resulted in his exile from Chechnya and received the English PEN Writers in Translation award, follows the first war of 1994 (after Chechnya gained de facto independence) and the later war of Dagestan, in 1999. At its heart is an unflinching account of torture. Eldin pulls no punches in recounting his ordeal at the torture centre in Khakala, and it is a wonder he survived at all, after being shot in the foot, beaten, given electric shocks, and having his ear partly sliced, after which he spent time in a concentration camp. As a fighter, he famed other kinds of intense hardships, not least eating raw horse out of hunger.
The descriptions of seeing the first surreal signs of war are as detailed, acute, and horrifying: "When you see human bodies ripped apart, corpses mashed by the treads of tanks, when you see dogs and cats feeding on the remains of people who only yesterday were just as alive as you… then it becomes horribly hard, almost impossible to remain a human being…"
Despite the grit, or rather, alongside it, runs a poetry of introspection. Regarding himself in second-person narration, he speaks of a split self: the self before war, and the self that remains irretrievably altered afterwards: "What you so bombastically refer to as your past is in fact the life of some other guy, someone you thought of as yourself. But he is not you. You and he are two different people; as unalike as a crystal and a stone."
Eldin's greatest challenge is to remain human in a dehumanising environment and in the end, it is also his greatest achievement.
BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital moveTV
Final Top Gear reviewTV
FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets
Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
- 2 'Help me I'm trapped in a factory' messages keep being found on bottles of vitamin water
- 3 Right to die: Belgian doctors rule depressed 24-year-old woman has right to end her life
- 4 Wimbledon 2015: Dustin Brown knocks Rafael Nadal out of the championship
- 5 Primark and Penny's heir Barry Ryan drowns trying to save his 21-year-old son
Top Gear: Former co-host James May to present new BBC2 car show
Game of Thrones season 6: Daenerys actress Emilia Clarke says '50/50 chance' Jon Snow is alive
Game of Thrones season 6: Release date, plots and dragons - everything we know so far
Spider-Man should stay white and straight in the movies, says comic book veteran Stan Lee
The last decade has produced just four UK festival headline acts
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture
They are neither a 'state' nor 'Islamic': Why we shouldn't call them Isis, Isil or IS