Makanin’s Asan: Dark myth of in Chechnia

Asan is less a book about Russia's Chechen battles and more of an unsatisfied, jittery novel that shows how war pushes participants and observers to piece together narratives that explain or justify actions.
September '23

AcaH (Asan), the winner of Vladimir Makanin’s Big Book prize, appears to be a stream-of-consciousness chronicle of the happenings in the life of a Russian manager of a military storehouse in Chechnya. However, the book is actually much more than that. Asan is less a book about Russia’s Chechen battles and more of an unsatisfied, jittery novel that shows how war pushes participants and observers to piece together narratives that explain or justify actions. The novel shows how war forces people to piece together narratives that explain or justify actions.

The major Aleksandr Sergeevich Zhilin who narrates Makanin is a character whose name has appeared in several works of literature. His initial name and patronymic are both taken from Pushkin, and a major Zhilin is the primary character in the short story Prisoner of the Caucasus written by Lev Tolstoy. His patronymic is also taken from Pushkin. Makanin’s Zhilin is given the moniker Asan because, in the novel, Asan is the name of a Chechen deity that a general learns about while devouring books about Chechnya’s history. Asan becomes a nickname for Makanin’s Zhilin. There is, of course, additional importance to the name Asan; it is similar to a few Russian nicknames for Aleksandr and may even refer to Alexander the Great. As a Russian officer with a questionable moral compass, Zhilin also becomes a questionable hero of his time. He is a 21st century descendent of Mikhail Lermontov’s Pechorin, the main character of Hero of Our Time, which was written in the 19th century.

Zhilin shares experiences from his life, such as how he made extra money by selling Russian fuels on the side, how he talked to his wife (who remains anonymous) on the phone about building a house with money obtained through illegal means, how he saved the lives of some soldiers but was responsible for the deaths of others, how his alcoholic father paid him a visit, and how he encountered two shell-shocked soldiers. The plots of a couple of these episodes show promise, but very few of them actually grow into very much. For instance, the younger Zhilin’s visit from his grandfather, who is an avid fan of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry, is heartwarming, but it feels more like a haphazard attempt to give the younger Zhilin a past than a way to develop his character.

Of course, it’s possible that Asan did this on purpose: he pieced together several pieces to make a messy novel about clumsy subjects. There are even a few instances in which the narrator switches between the first person and the third person perspective. Makanin-Zhilin’s stories are repetitive and self-referential; he adds… to the beginning of each sentence, then adds… to the beginning of each subsequent sentence, and finally ends each sentence with!. At first, this mode of expression felt a little bit exciting, and it even had an addictive quality…

To the reader’s relief, the shell-shocked soldiers inject the book with some much-needed continuity. The troops provide Makanin and Zhilin with a focus: the soldiers wish to return to their unit, and Zhilin is tasked with finding a convoy to transport them away. Makanin is given the responsibility of protecting Zhilin. The soldier lays the responsibility on “sun bunnies,” which is a phrase used here for dappled sunlight and is also the name of a camouflage pattern, as well as a large sum of money that was not honestly obtained. Zhilin spins a web of shifting narratives, or lies, that he and the other troops may use to justify their actions and make sense of what took place.

War is, of course, a pointless endeavor, as Makanin points out to the readers of Asan on multiple occasions throughout the book. Zhilin claims that there is no logic to it, which makes it impossible for you to comprehend. In a nutshell, while Zhilin strives to make sense of the events, his actions, and his life, the truth begins to slip away and myths acquire momentum.The kinds of war truths that are discussed in Asan are not those that are typically found in newspapers. It is about how humans attempt to bring order out of chaos by turning the realities of war, which are commodities as elusive as sun bunnies, into fiction. It was Makanin’s intention for the book to be clumsy rather than graceful. ✪


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