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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #398

The weather was typically dreary as I trudged off the train from the frozen Hanoi to the frozen Saigon yesterday morning. Nevertheless I’d slept on the train and I was in a reasonably positive mood to go straight into work to chop vegetables. My main dilemma was whether to wear my military combat trousers, because while they’re great at dusting off the dirt when you’re working in a military kitchen (no sorts of filth stick to them), as we found out in Kharkiv you can get yourself refused alcohol in bars wearing military trousers. Yesterday afternoon I went to a rather curious version of Virgil’s Aeneid, an extended recital in Ukrainian, for which I had printed off an entire book sent to me by my friend whose idea this was with the Ukrainian and English in parallel translations side by side. And then we would go for a drink in the theatre bar or some such thing, and I didn’t want not to get served. These are typical of the dilemmas with which we are cursed, living in wartime Ukraine. In the end I decided to come home and write these words, and change my trousers into plain bluejeans: the risk is too high, I figured, and a strong drink might be in order particularly if Virgil turns out to be hard going. So my friend had to endure me in a half-military look, with jeans and a military jacket. I hope she likes the eccentric mixed-up look.

What particularly concerned me about Virgil was that the plot seemed to be entirely different from the original. Whereas Virgil was commissioned to write the Aeneid to glorify the Roman Empire with the characters travelling around Italy having various adventures, this version of the Aeneid, written by Ivan Kotliarevsky in the late nineteenth century, is about a group of Cossacks as far as I can tell travelling around Ukraine having various adventures, and it is not a translation from the original Latin but something completely different that itself translates into English in rather crude and barbaric language. So I wasn’t not sure what I was letting myself in for, but I figured it was likely to be highly peculiar. Anyway after pondering the text on my desk at home for a while, I did my best after my gruelling train ride to prepare my sparkly eyes and my breezy smile for her, irrespective of whatever horror she was about to put me through.

In the event, horror it was, as well as startling, exuberant and rather enigmatic. There was no need to have bothered trying to read the text; the cast barely followed it and it was all incomprehensible. The stage opened with various piece wearing white cloths shrieking and screaming, and dancing to grimacing blue clouds as though in an Ibiza techno nightclub. The main actor swaggered up and down the stage like a maniac, shouting out at members of the audience, while other members of the cast ran around the stalls area in the middle of the audience. There were various acts of simulated sex or insinuations of sexual provocation. Blue lights came down from the ceiling while the principal actor thrust his fingers down his throat. The actors started playing accordions and gallivanting round the stage, all the time dressed in what appeared to be night gowns. People were thrown and hurled around the stage.

At one point in the middle of all this there was mercifully an air raid siren and the theatre building was emptied. My friend and I walked to the pub and drank some beer and half of me was praying to God that the air raid alert would be an extended one and that we wouldn’t have to go back and instead we could spend the rest of the afternoon in the bar. Alas it was not to be. This was a short national air raid alert because a Mig fighter aircraft had taken off in Russia and that puts the whole country on alert for long-range missile attacks. So we tramped back into the theatre for the second half.

This was also a strange affair. One of the actresses had been possessed by the devil, and there were scenes of everyone going down into Hell. In a curious take on the original Virgil, she had been possessed by Alexander Lukashenko (the President of Belarus) and by Vladimir Putin and she started talking in squeaky voices mimicking them. I’m sure that wasn’t in the original Virgil. Words cannot begin to describe how extraordinarily bizarre this event was but it was certainly extremely popular with the Ukrainians. And I am pretty sure I was the only foreigner in the audience, clutching my absurd translation guide because it was impossible to work out what anyone was screaming or shrieking about at all. Nevertheless the whole event appeared tremendously Ukrainian: it was full of depressing scenes of alcoholism, drunkenness, people ruining their lives, hangovers, sexual sin, exile in the West for economic reasons (at one point one of the actors put his foot through a polystyrene model of a Ukrainian village house, representing turning his back on his country - at least I think that was the idea) and I realised one new aspect of Ukrainian culture I had not experienced before. Ukraine has a lot of self-loathing as well as a lot of pride. While this is their moment of glory, fighting off the Russians, Ukrainians are embarrassed by themselves as a nation that has never really worked and that is awash with vice. This is a distinctly Ukrainian twist on Virgil, whose Aeneid was supposed to be about glamorising Italy whereas this gross distortion of the original, I felt, was in large part about self-abasement of the Ukrainian national personality and trying to find pride and meaning amidst Ukraine’s tragic and miserable history.

After we finally emerged from this mysterious monstrosity of a play, in which it was actually far better not to understand the script given all the eccentric galavanting around going on upon the stage, the rest of the evening was a typical welcome back to the frozen Saigon. My friend and I went to smoke shisha, in a cosy new bar I love, and we chatted about computer programming, her passion. She went home at a reasonable hour and I walked back into my favourite bar to bump into K——, who had been drinking there since late afternoon on her own, probably waiting for me. Her husband comes back into town today, and I don’t think she wants to see him. By the time I got there - I was later than usual - she was so slaughtered that the staff wouldn’t serve her anymore and she slumped off home, barely able to speak to me. She is a lost soul that everything irrational in me tells me to care for. Then there were some politics in the NGO community that inflicts us all, and I sloped off to bed early as I realised that I didn’t want to engage in another round on infighting. Tonight I go to see some Bach, and the rest of the day I think I will commit to hard manual labour. I need to work the chaos of the frozen Saigon out of my system.


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