September 2, 2011


by Nicolai Lilin
404 pages, Canongate

Review by Marc Nash

Most of us have probably read a book about the horrors of warfare, haven't we? Not like this one I bet.

The author was a sniper in a 7-man plain clothes "anti-terrorist" unit who fought in the second Chechen war against Islamic militants and Chechen nationalists. It was a horrible, brutal war - aren't they all? - well let's just say both sides in this conflict had form for abuses. Grozny, Chechenya's capital, was described by the UN as "the most destroyed city in Europe since the Second World War". But you don't need any knowledge about that particular campaign to get so much from this read.

There is the customary war memoir of disdain for Generals far removed in cozy offices in the rear and the brotherhood of the soldiers working to keep one another alive. But Lilin has many acute observations about the madness and hallucinatory nature of war. It starts off in Kafkaesque fashion with his conscription and a declaration that he was now the property of the Russian government and "if you try to escape, harm yourself, or commit suicide, you will be prosecuted for damage to government property". His return to civilian life at the end is searingly rendered in a few short pages as his to his maladjustment back to society. Despising houses with unbroken windows, walls unpockmarked by bullets. Needing to sleep with a gun in his hand and the TV on full blast because he couldn't sleep in silence. He earlier described how his commanding officer, an Afghan war veteran, muttered orders in his sleep pertaining to that war and not the present one. This is post-traumatic stress disorder nailed in a few pages.

But what elevates Free Fall above anything else I have read on the subject is the description of the fighting itself. I kept asking myself how he could recall all this observed detail, while engaged in a firefight with all the chaos and loss of bearings entailed. His kills are described in detail almost like a star football striker reliving each of his goals. But then his eidetic memory is clear as he memorises landscape features or scans for clues to the location of hidden enemy snipers. He has an eye for detail in his craft of killing, which transfers effortlessly into writing about it after the event. The sniper's eternal patience searching out his prey, contrasting with the chaotic freneticism of a battleground, he describes as "to watch scenes of death with great calm, [was] to look at them like one looks at a painting". Stillness in the heart of battle.

I don't think the detailing of death is done with any particular relish, unlike the footballer recounting his glorious strikes. Instead we get the precise detail of the destructive power of modern weaponry on defenceless and yielding human flesh. I was reminded of that chapter in Bolano's "2666" listing the features of murdered girls. Well this just blew that out of the water. You actually feel every death described here and are forced to reflect afresh on how lucky you are not to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time and into conscription or oppression that has to be resisted. Lilin's guilt at a young conscript who is killed because of his own carelessness is heartbreaking. As a piece of writing, it was a life introduced and then despatched in the space of just a couple of pages, but oh so powerfully. He writes chilling metaphors, such as stringing hand grenades along a trip wire as "like decorating a Christmas tree".

I was struck by the curiously religious and slightly old-fashioned way the soldiers spoke to one another, referring to each other as "boys", which is what of course many were. Just as their grandfathers had been programmed to fight the Nazis as a natural enemy of Communism, the Islamic threat of the insurgents drove them back to feelings associated their Russian Orthodoxy, a religion they didn't follow or practice, but still glommed on to its sentimental tugs. They knew their mothers back home would be lighting candles and praying for them in their onion domed churches. The soldiers meanwhile invested energies in their own folkloric superstitions. [God] "was a haven for our souls, the only place not regulated by military code".

Lilin describes times when he lost his bearings to reality during battles, whether overcome by hopelessness and a yearning to die, or reeling from the effects of concussion after a grenade exploded near him. These are powerful and effective commentaries on the discombobulation of the body pushed beyond extremes. Yet it is the simple words of a captured prisoner, one of the few not executed in one of several horrific manners to be displayed as a 'monument' and as revenge from videos of their own men beheaded, that perhaps best summed up the whole campaign: "our society doesn't deserve all the effort we're putting into this war".

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I promise you will have your eyes opened wider than ever before on this subject.

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