Essays On War

Yuriy Vynnychuk. A Presentation Under Stress

A Presentation Under Stress

The war suddenly and brazenly invaded my life, upending my usual routine and leaving me in a state of disbelief. I feel like a potted plant taken from a cozy room and left out in the frosty weather.

I had to abandon the novel I was working on before the war, and life took on a dismal taste. But like a plant by the window, I continued to exist.

Although some rockets reached Lviv, the war seemed far away. It was only a distant reality for me, playing out on the internet, where I could closely monitor events, watch footage from the battlefield, and see the dead bodies of enemies.

During my conversation with an Austrian journalist about this topic, I revealed that I didn’t follow in my father’s footsteps as a doctor because the medical school required dissecting corpses. His response was so uproarious that it resonated throughout the entire restaurant.

My first brushes with the war came through Czech volunteers headed to the front and refugees from Dnipro. However, the war still felt distant and not as real as it would soon become, looming ever closer and staring directly into your eyes and soul.

It wasn’t until I was invited to visit with the wounded in a hospital that I truly saw the war’s impact. I declined the initial invitation last spring due to online lecture obligations. Still, this time, I was invited to a hospital in the Lviv region rather than in Lviv itself.

A doctor I was acquainted with came to pick me up, and that day, I found myself in a cheerful mood. We joked around on the way there, and later on, I realized that he was probably intentionally keeping me from thinking about what I would see at the hospital.

Of course, I had a general idea of what I might encounter, but I wasn’t prepared to speak to guys without legs, arms, or eyes, as well as those who were severely burned or bound to their beds. I wasn’t ready because I had no words of comfort for them, even though they probably didn’t expect any from a stranger.

I thought that they would be gathered in some room for a routine meeting. I would tell them some amusing stories about myself, read some funny episodes from my books, and answer any questions they might have.

But things didn’t go as planned. The doctor informed me that I would have to speak to them not in a room but in their wards.

This caught me off guard; I hadn’t anticipated this. How was I supposed to talk to just four guys in a ward? Was I supposed to give the same presentation repeatedly in every ward? And how many times would I have to do this?

The doctor also didn’t know how it was supposed to be carried out.

„You need to lift their spirits,“ he said. „If you visit at least four or five wards, that would be good.“ 

„And what about those I don’t visit?“ 

Seeing my dejection and confusion, he took me to his office and poured half a glass of brandy. „Drink and don’t worry about how or what will happen. It will just be a simple conversation. You don’t have to read anything. They’ll ask you about something, talk about plans for the future; some have girlfriends, and others don’t.“ Why did he say that last sentence? It troubled me. When I was drafted into the army years ago, they asked if I had a girlfriend. And I did. The major wrote something in my file. Only later did I learn that there were cases where a girl dumped a guy who was serving in the army, and he shot himself. That’s why they kept track of them. However, things turned out differently than what the doctor had prepared me for. In the first ward, where there were only four soldiers, more than ten suddenly crowded in from the moment I entered with him, some walking while others were on crutches. They sat on the edges of the beds and prepared to listen to my prophetic words. As expected, they had never heard of me or read anything I had written. However…

„Are you the author of Kill the Bastard?“ the first question rang out. It came from a young man with only one hand. I confirmed it and then told them about all the events that followed. Two or three of them peeked at Wikipedia before the meeting, and now they clarified things like, „Is it true that you…“ It reminded me of a school visit with students that came at me with questions they had gathered from Wikipedia. Overall, everything went smoothly. I didn’t have to make them laugh with my stories; I just needed some cheerful episodes from my life as a young man. I looked at them in amazement, wondering how they could laugh, having gone through such tragedy in their lives, maimed in their prime. But they laughed and joked too. I wanted to learn everything I could about them, including how they got wounded, right down to the details. But I couldn’t bring myself to ask. The next room had six soldiers, all of them bedridden, but the room was spacious, and their beds didn’t clutter it up. However, to my surprise, the „walkers“ from the previous room followed us to the second one, and a few more joined them. I helplessly looked at the doctor. He immediately understood my problem: I couldn’t repeat what I said in the first room if some soldiers had already heard it. However, the curious guys from the nomadic group didn’t stop and continued to bombard me with questions. The doctor chimed in, the atmosphere was cheerful, and more and more soldiers crowded into the room. Soon, I was sitting on the windowsill.

I overheard someone saying, „We have a poet too!“ and the soldiers pushed forward the young man without an arm. He was hesitant, but with some encouragement, he brought out a regular lined notebook and showed it to me. The poems were simple, a mix of patriotic and love themes, and didn’t display much talent. However, he was still young, and I suggested that he might develop his skills with more reading and writing. I complimented his work but urged everyone to document their experiences on the front, emphasizing that it was vital for history. I provided examples of the Sich Riflemen, Divisionists, and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army soldiers who had recorded many important memories and even created artistic works, like Vitaliy Bender, a Divisionist who authored the beautiful novel March of Youth. The soldiers were surprised to learn that Bender, a native of Luhansk region, became a soldier in the Galicia division. I promised to pass the book along to them.  

This second „presentation“ lasted for more than an hour. I was exhausted. None of the meetings with readers affected me so much. The doctor led me back to his office, and from behind me, I heard: „When will you come again? Come back soon!“ I slumped into a chair and let out a deep exhale, feeling the hospital’s smell dissipate from my body along with the air. The doctor looked at me sympathetically. Then he said:

„This is my life every day… every day… And with each one, you have to joke, tease, and not let them get too down. However, there is no shortage of optimists among them eager to return to the front.“

He could not give me a ride back, so I took the bus. During the entire journey, I couldn’t stop thinking about how the war had come so close to me. Memories of the voices of heroes filled my mind, and my hand still felt the warm handshakes of many. I could see bandages, crutches, iron rods in legs, and black glasses in my mind’s eye. Such a war will stay with us forever. 

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan