‘Lucky Breaks’ features a different kind of Ukrainian hero

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Strokes of luck. By Yevgenia Belorusets. Translated by Eugene Ostashevsky. New Directions; 112pages; $14.95. Pushkin Press; $9.99

JHE HERO of “Lucky Breaks”, a seductive book about the war in Ukraine by Yevgenia Belorusets, does not conform to the ideals of martial heroism. They do not engage in battle except against the fear, displacement, and loss that battles bring. Almost all of them are women, exercising jobs generally considered feminine: they are florists, manicurists, cosmetologists. They run along the edges of historical events, rather than sticking to their centers. The author explains this orientation:

The insignificant and the petty, the accidental, the superfluous, the repressed, all of these things catch my attention because they will never become the trophies that… winners carry from the present into the future so that they can lay down their loot, like bricks, to build the dominant historical narrative.

Ms. Belorusets is a photographer and artist with a long history of documenting underrepresented communities in Ukraine, from minors to queer people. After Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and started a war in Donbass in 2014, she turned her camera to the women of the region. She began recording interviews and developed a haunting, lyrical style of writing. In “Lucky Breaks”, she weaves words and images, photographs and prose portraits of real and imagined characters. Published in Ukraine in 2018 and now in English, it has taken on a new intensity amid yet another onslaught from the Russian president, determined, as he appears to be, to walk away with historic spoils, no matter how much bloodshed. it spreads.

The short chapters are unobtrusive but feature repetitive elements, the same narrator and a recurring character, a spectral presence called Andrea, a writer for the newspapers no one reads. The voices of women resound and collide; realism bleeds into dreams and fantasies. Images and text are not illustrations or descriptions of each other, but rather subtle mutual commentary, reminiscent of the work of writers such as WG Sebald and Teju Cole.

The book is held together by invisible threads and recurring motifs, including the act of sewing. In Eugene Ostashevsky’s skilful translation from the author’s Russian, a woman with “a snow-white face and snow-white arms, with golden hair and a sweet smile on her cherry lips” forgets a needle in her nightgown after sewing up a hole. Another decides to leave her hometown and her mother, a legendary ribbon weaver at the local factory. Embroidery, rather than sculpture, is also the author’s technique; she offers the document, however unreliable, in place of the monument. Along the way, the categories of “fact” and “fiction” collapse.

War has now broken out across Ukraine, including Kiev, where Ms Belorusets lives. Since the start of the last invasion, she has published a poignant online diary on insulated, an editorial project. She turns her gaze on herself, both documentary filmmaker and documented. His phantasmagorical flourishes return: in his shelter, under the Golden Gate of Kiev (which we also find in “Lucky Breaks”), the shadows converse. In the streets, nervous soldiers see his camera as a threat. Despite the bombs, she continues to write. “Catastrophe must be represented: only within the framework of a story can it be recognized as a catastrophe.”

This article appeared in the Culture section of the print edition under the headline “Tapestries of war”


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