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Book Review August 8, 2002
Berkeley Bustard, Afghan Sucker
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 3
Hell yes I'm ready! We're ALL ready! We'd like nothing better than to see a SpetsNats veteran unleashed on that Berkeley "bustard"! In fact, "bustard" is no mere mispronunciation but a brilliant coinage, a very apt description of the sort of people who run businesses like Ten Speed Press. A bustard is a big, dust-colored bird which favors dry, beige landscapes. That's Berkeley, all right! So nothing would please me more, Mister Tamarov, than to help you hunt the Great Bustards who lied to you.

I'd love to help Tamarov sell more copies and show up the Berkeley Bustards who conned him. Alas, the best that can be said for A Russian Soldier's Story is that it is the only, and therefore the best, Afghanets memoir available in English.

It's a slight book, less than 200 pages. Most of the book consists of large black-and-white photos Tamarov took in Afghanistan. There are only a few thousand words of text, much of it not much more than captions for the photos.

This might have worked, if the text were a bit more interesting. Tamarov can tell a good story, as his account of Ten Speed's betrayal shows. But the subject of War pushes him into Sovok sentimentality and cliche. He describes "an officer with a smiling face and sad eyes," exclaims, "What can any war give, aside from such results?" mentions that "...[the war] had seemed to be some sort of terrible dream" and explains that "Afghanistan taught me to believe actions, not words."

But there's worse; there's the poetic frills with which Tamarov very unwisely burdens his text. These consist of rolling periods in the worst declamatory style, often enclosing childish paradoxes -- cheap gaudy twists of phrase. One particularly irritating caption accompanies a posed, melodramatic shot of Tamarov standing in a desert after a jump, his parachute laid out behind him like a ball gown. He stares at the camera grimly like some damned existentialist poster boy.

That was bad enough, but the accompanying text really made me grimace. Rather than say something interesting about where the jump happened or how it went, Tamarov's caption ends with a grand Roman period: "Two weeks after my first jump, I was flown to Afghanistan...

...Where I lived, to kill. Where I killed, to live."

Yes, yes: kill to live, live to kill -- the kind of braintwister which probably wowed'em in Brussels circa 1921. This sort of melodramatic chiasmus, which occurs quite early in the text, was enough to make me grit my teeth and turn the page, hoping Tamarov would settle down, as many amateur writers do, once they've coughed up a few trills and flourishes. 'Twas not to be. On the very next page, there's another damned prose poem in the provincial-existential mode. Worse still -- and this is simply unforgivable -- this clunky paradox contains the word "abyss," preceded by three dots: "In boot camp, when I made my first jump, I was terrified to take the first step out of the airplane...into the abyss.

When I took off for Afghanistan from boot camp, I was terrified to take the first step into the plane...into the abyss."

Geddit? Geddit? First he's afraid to step OUT of the plane into the abyss, then he's scared to go INTO the plane because it'll take him to Afghanistan and that's a bigger abyss!

It's embarrassing just reading drivel like this. And don't tell me I'm picking on a simple soldier who knows nothing about literary writing. The trouble with most amateur writers is not that they don't understand literary form but that they're possessed by cheap, used literary forms and haven't taken the trouble to think about them or grow wary of them let alone replace them.

If Tamarov wrote like a "simple Soviet soldier," satisfied to tell the reader WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED, he might have produced a great book. Instead, like every other "simple" writer who ever exploited this coy persona, Tamarov is all too literary. Specifically, he is enchanted by a whole toolkit of mid-twentieth-century cliches, the cheap paradoxes which will strike readers circa 2050 as risible, at best.

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