Bustard, Afghan Sucker
few weeks ago, in the pages of the BEAST's sister paper, the
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.
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:
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
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!
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.
Tamarov explains excitedly, his abortive literary career popped
up again the minute the towers went down:
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 )."
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 )."
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!
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 ???"
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
weeks after my first jump, I was flown to Afghanistan...
I lived, to kill. Where I killed, to live."
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:
boot camp, when I made my first jump, I was terrified to
take the first step out of the airplane... into the abyss.
I took off for Afghanistan from boot camp, I was terrified
to take the first step into the plane... into the abyss."
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!
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.
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.
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
'Let them be quick,' he said quietly, staring fixedly at
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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."
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