The Sky Wept Fire: My Life as a Chechen Freedom Fighter
Translated by Anna Gunin
Portobello Books, 2013
It hardly needs restating, in this centenary year, that one of the great legacies of the First World War was literary. It is taken for granted that writers give expression to experience, but when experience resists adequate representation the failure of articulation becomes a subject in itself. For Paul Bäumer, the narrator of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), it is better simply not to try: “it is dangerous for me to put these things into words. I am afraid they might then become gigantic and I be no longer able to master them. What would become of us if everything that happens out there were quite clear to us?”
It is dangerous, too, to collapse the experiences and representations of one conflict— and the historical and political complexities which gave rise to it—into another. But anyone seeking a new articulation of these challenges, and a fuller understanding of a European conflict of more recent times, would do well to read Mikail Eldin’s memoir of the Chechen conflicts in the 1990s, The Sky Wept Fire: My Life as a Chechen Freedom Fighter. This remarkable first-hand account is fraught with the complications of representation. For a start, its journey through translation was not straightforward. Eldin wrote the book in Russian, not his native Chechen, and a raw, unedited manuscript made its way to Anna Gunin, who translated it beautifully into English. The editing and crafting of the text happened in English, too, and it has not been published in its first language. The book works on the reader principally through its directness of address, and yet Eldin, who is not fluent in English, remains at one remove from his extraordinary work as it has reached his Anglophone readers.
In the Preface, Eldin is careful to position his account in terms of both genre and sensibility. “It is only possible to write beautifully about war if you have never witnessed it from within,” he begins. While he includes, from time to time, the empirical facts of the Chechen wars—the number of Russian troops and the far thinner ranks of resistance fighters who took them on; the cities seized; the key dates—he is insistent that he is not writing a history: “For a chronicle, you need the utterly cold and impartial mind of a historian. Whereas I have followed my memories haphazardly… Listening more to my heart.” His happy life as an arts journalist in Grozny was brought to a halt by the Russian invasion of Chechnya in 1994: in this first Chechen war 100,000 people are estimated to have died. He fled Chechnya but returned to join the second conflict in 1999, before being forced to leave the country once again. He sought political asylum in Norway, where he now lives and writes.
Eldin began by covering the war and he ended up fighting in it—joining the resistance, and suffering capture and torture at the hands of Russian forces. He recounts these experiences with appalling exactness. Eldin understands the people who are tasked with hurting him, and the mixture of the banal and the brutal in one particular scene marks the reader indelibly. He is being subjected to electric shocks in his fingers and toes. The instrument of torture is an old-fashioned telephone set, and so the soldiers are prompted to sing an old Soviet pop song, ‘Call Me Up’. “But this isn’t sadism,” he writes:
It is their job. An ordinary job, which they do with skill and to their utmost ability. The longer and faster they wind the handle, the higher the voltage and stronger the current shooting through you. [. . .] They continue to wind the handle, cheerfully singing, ‘Call me up, oh, call me. For the love of God, call me …’ You realize that they won’t stop unless you scream. You let out a scream. [. . .] You’re screaming more from impotent rage than from the pain. They stop. Only to start again five seconds later…
The Sky Wept Fire is an immersive book: the present tense and the second-person pronoun are repeatedly invoked at such moments of heightened experience. This “you” is of course reflexive—it is him, Eldin, but he has put himself outside the story to see it all again, next to us, the readers, as we see it for the first time.
Supported by English PEN’s ‘Writers in Translation’ programme, Gunin’s translation went on to win an English PEN Award. The lyricism with which she renders this book of memories is in turn one of its most memorable aspects. Eldin begins his account of his return to Chechnya in autumn 1999 with an extended description of that season:
Autumn heralds a brief period of harmony between life and death, between light and dark, between the mind and the soul. [. . .] The sun does not laugh: it smiles. [. . .] And the rain does not pour down. No, it cries teardrops. Mournfully, quietly. It is silently crying for the immensely sad and beautiful autumn.
It is in contemplation of the natural world that the book concludes. Eldin’s epilogue finds him by the sea in northern Norway. The shoreline is always a place in between, and it is there that he recognises himself to be inexorably caught between times, living a present and future life which will always take him back to the past. The Sky Wept Fire is a remarkable work of life-writing and a brilliantly rendered translation; it is also a book that we need, reminding us of the challenge to representation which a conflict in our own time has set a writer who lived, fought, and suffered it.
Rosie Lavan  is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.