Voroshilovgrad by Serhiy Zhadan, translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes & Isaac Wheeler (Deep Vellum, 400 pages, April 12)
The bleak and desolate expanse of eastern Ukraine is the backdrop as well as a major character in Zhadan's novel, first published in 2010. Since that time, fighting among various factions has made the area deadly and life there uncertain. This makes reading Voroshilovgrad and following the news of the Ukrainian conflict oddly unsettling.
A strange mixture of magical realism, road novel, and spiritual journey, Voroshilovgrad follows the seemingly-random wanderings of Herman Korolyov, who is called away from his sketchy political job and friends to deal with the sudden disappearance of his brother. Herman journeys back to his childhood town and the gas station his brother had been running on the Kharkiv highway in order to figure out what to do with the business now that his brother has left (for Amsterdam? It's never clear).
Once back on his old stomping-grounds, Herman encounters old friends, ghosts, criminals, a priest, nomads, and more. At the gas station, he tries to figure out, with the help of his partners Injured and Kocha, how to stop some shady businessmen from sabotaging the station that Herman refuses to sell. One night, Herman even participates in a soccer game with his former teammates, only to find out a few days later that most of those men have been dead for years.
It is this sense that the main character is being pulled into various situations and places without being able (or willing) to take control of his own life that reminds me of my favorite novel, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. There, another young man leaves his unsatisfactory life in the city for a visit that was supposed to be for a few weeks but turns into several years. When Herman first sets out for the gas station, he assures his friends that he'll be returning in a few days, only to find that the tug of memory and history is so strong that he can do nothing other than remain where he is.
By turns jaunty, hilarious, poignant, and depressing, Voroshilovgrad tells an important story about the people left in the wake of Communism's collapse, and the ways in which they try to build a future.