As the current war in Ukraine unfolds in real-time thanks to social media and seemingly instantaneous reporting, significant questions about Russian and Ukrainian identities — where they meet, where they conflict, where they overlap — as well as the Russian and Ukrainian languages permeate global headlines. In February 2022, when Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” that resulted in a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, one of his many justifications for doing so was the persecution of Russian identity and Russian language in Ukraine. Therefore, it is no wonder why a novel like Eugene Vodolazkin’s Brisbane not only grabs reader’s attentions, but also contributes to the ever-growing conversations about what it means to be Russian, what it means to be Ukrainian, and more significantly, what it means to be human.
In the novel, readers meet Gleb Yanovsky, a talented and celebrated guitarist. After suffering from a trembling hand and other mobility issues, Yanovsky receives a devastating revelation — he has Parkinson’s disease. At the same time, Yanovsky permits writer Sergei Nesterov to pen his biography. Readers travel with Yanovsky through his difficult childhood in Kyiv; his fraught relations with his Ukrainian father; his time in Munich with his German wife, Katya; and his and Katya’s eventual adoption of Vera, a talented thirteen-year-old virtuoso battling cancer. Structured in sections balancing Yanovsky’s past recollections and his present existence, readers travel the complex markers of a well-lived life along with the complex markers of language and family that shape one’s identity.
Brisbane balances the cultural and the political with the musical and the philosophical. One of the most noticeable, subtly politically charged conversations occurs between Yanovsky and Nesterov and concerns the Russian and Ukrainian languages. As Yanovsky and Nesterov discuss Yanovsky’s childhood, Nesterov asks Yanovsky, “Was Ukrainian forbidden?” Yanovsky replies, “No. Quite the opposite. All the signs were in Ukrainian, the radio, all that sort of thing.” When Nesterov poses the issue of a “nationality issue,” Yanovsky declares that at the time Russian was considered “the more prestigious language” and that “Everyone realized you couldn’t get anywhere without it.” In Yanovsky’s opinion, “The question of prestige stands above national identity. When the identity becomes a matter of prestige, that’s another matter.” The conversation quickly shifts to how one defines their identity as Nesterov observes that Yanovsky combines the two nations. When Nesterov asks Yanovsky, “Well, what do you consider yourself?” Yanovsky states, “I could say Russian of course,” and then later explains, “I just don’t distinguish between those nations very well.” Yanovsky’s quandary, his inability to “distinguish between those nations very well,” is one faced by many outside of those cultures and countries as they attempt to understand the current war in Ukraine. His quandary reiterates an often-heard line in many of Putin’s justifications for the war in Ukraine — that Russia and Ukraine are siblings, one nation, and that Russia is merely returning Ukraine to where it “rightfully” belongs.
Part of the novel’s immense power lies in its cyclical structure, and despite the depictions of Yanovsky’s comprehension of his disease, his blossoming role as an adopted father to young Vera, the novel’s conversations return to the question of cultural identity. Upon his return to Ukraine after his father’s death, Yanovsky finds himself in a country again facing a revolution. Initially, he is greeted by border guards who, according to Yanovsky, “aren’t quite steady with their ‘native tongue.’” He observes that he speaks “the language much better.” The encounter propels Yanovsky into an identity crisis, one that leaves him asking “Why did I switch to Ukrainian with them? I never did with my father. Maybe because our relationship went deeper than politeness?” Later, the depictions of Maidan — “lit up by fires burning in front of tent” where an old man and an old woman wearing “Felt boots and sheepskin coats” — set the scene for the 2014 events that established the latest stage in Ukraine’s war with Russia.
The events of Maidan become personal for Yanovsky when he meets his half-brother, Oles, and they travel to bury their father. Oles asks if Yanovsky misses Ukraine “just a little.” Yanovsky tells Oles that for him “Russia and Ukraine are one land.” Oles responds, “For us, they aren’t.” Then, after Yanovsky tells Oles he should not say “we” so often, that “‘I’ means so much more,” Oles makes a profound statement: “Sorry, brother, that’s your fantasy. When thousands are at war, ‘I’ means nothing.” What readers notice at this point is Yanovsky’s disconnect with his birth country as well as his family. More significantly, especially in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this brief moment highlights the deep divisions permeating not only Ukrainians and Russians with family in either country, but diasporic members of both cultures and countries across the globe. Some readers might feel that Yanovsky’s critical eye toward Ukrainians taking a stand for their sovereignty is critical, even arrogant — an attitude many Ukrainians have expressed encountering during the current war, especially as Russian state media continues creating and spreading disinformation. It is at this point that, in the context of current events, readers might feel a tad uncomfortable, depending upon their politics.
Brisbane is deep, ambitious. With its constant questions about whether one can be simultaneously Russian and Ukrainian, it is a timely novel. At the same time, it is also an investment — of time, of emotional stamina, of a willingness to look beyond one’s own understanding of humanity, the arts, and language. With its heartbreaking storyline, its political undertones and overtures, Brisbane gives one message to readers seeking for a more meaningful reading and existence: live every moment — to the fullest.
Eugene Vodolazkin; translated by Marian Schwartz
Plough Publishing House
Published May 3rd, 2022