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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Depeche Mode

Serhiy Zhadan

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To purchase Depeche Mode

Title: Depeche Mode
Author: Serhiy Zhadan
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 200 pages
Original in: Ukrainian
Availability: Depeche Mode - US
Depeche Mode - UK
Depeche Mode - Canada
Depeche Mode - India
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Depeche Mode - Italia
  • Ukrainian title: Депеш Мод
  • Translated by Miroslav Shkandrij

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a cut above the usual alcohol-soaked post-Soviet turmoil fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 24/1/2014 Uilleam Blacker

  From the Reviews:
  • "Depeche Mode (originally published in 2004) is the finest example of his early work. The combination of Zhadanís rich, often surrealist prose with the smart street slang of Ukrainian teenagers represents a challenge for the translator that Myroslav Shkandrij meets with remarkable deftness. (...) The focus is less on plot than on the effects of alcohol, drugs and aimless wandering through the city." - Uilleam Blacker, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note: that this review is based on the German translation of the novel, by Juri Durkot und Sabine Stöhr; a comparison with the first twenty pages of the English translation suggests that some of the coarseness and profanity has been toned down in the English version.]

       In a brief introductory section, dated 2004, the now thirty-year-old Zhadan looks back and considers what has changed in Ukraine over the past fifteen years, since the beginning of the Soviet end -- and finds: "Almost nothing". When he was fifteen his attitude was already apathetic -- things have a way of working out, and in any case things could be worse -- and it carries over; it makes for an interesting perspective: life is shit here, for the most part, but Zhadan and his buddies aren't complainers. For the most part, they take things as they come, and shrug off ... well, pretty much everything. (They're often steeped in alcohol, which seems to help.)
       The novel proper is set in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, in the summer of 1993, when Zhadan and his friends were nineteen or so, and covers just a few days. The chapters are divided into smaller time-stamped and dated chunks, giving a more immediate sense of how time is passing (and, occasionally, how it isn't, as they wait around; there is a considerable amount of idling, too.).
       A four part-Introduction, covering a good third of the book, introduces the trio of main characters: narrator Zhadan, Dogg Pavlov, and Vasia the Communist. Here we find Dogg dragged to an FC Metalist match where, already barely functional, he gets injured and winds up in hospital. Vasia's recent adventures include getting involved in a (very) small-time vodka smuggling ring, across the nearby Russian border -- which is quickly and decisively put out of business. A drunk Zhadan is picked up by the police and expects the worst at the station; he gets off easy -- though he's only able to walk out so soon because the officials are distracted by some gunfire elsewhere in the building.
       Back home, the three friends reunited after their various semi-adventures (which appear not to be very much out of the ordinary for them), the story proper begins. The plot is simple: they get word that their friend Sasha Carburetor's step-father has died (a suicide), and they feel enough of a sense of duty that they let themselves be talked into trying to find him, so that he can attend the funeral. There's some time pressure -- the funeral is in two days -- and there's the problem that they have no idea where Carburetor is, but taking their apparently usual of approach of more less blindly forging ahead they give it a go.
       Booze continues to figure prominently, a universal currency not only in commercial terms but fundamental to almost any sort of interaction. (Pot and some pill-popping also figure along the way, but it's booze that everyone constantly falls back on.)
       Roaming around in search of Carburetor the trio get involved in a variety of minor escapades (such as liberating a bust of Molotov) and encounter a small cross-section of Ukrainian types -- best described as on the periphery of society, even as that doesn't feel entirely accurate, because this society seems all periphery; there's barely any sense of normalcy anywhere. Eventually, they set out on a road-(which is actually a train-)trip, their pilgrimage extending further; here, over the course of four Epilogues, Zhadan's companions drop off, left to their fates, and only Zhadan completes the journey, finding Carburetor, with just enough time to spare.
       Soaked through and through in booze (and rather too much vomit, as well), Depeche Mode long seems a predictable tale of unrooted youth in the post-communist transition, a time and place of uncertainty and aimlessness on almost all levels. Yet while what Zhadan describes is very much a fouled world (including, again: too much vomit), the novel is striking in its lack of bitterness and a generous humor; conditions that are generally bleak and bleaker aren't pitched into just the pitch-black; if not exactly a rosy picture, Zhadan works with an underlying hopefulness -- beneath the surface, so that it barely registers openly, but undeniably there.
       There's a pay-off for all the drunken rambling too, as the final stages of the friends' quest rouse them, in different ways, from their apathy. In Dogg's case, taking action is only a brief shining moment -- and he suffers all the more for it -- but there's real poignancy to this -- and then even more so to Zhadan's own deliberations, once he has finally finds Carburetor. Depeche Mode isn't just a rambling road-story of the times but turns out to be a quite artfully constructed work of fiction.
       The novel's slightly unusual presentation -- with its multiple Introductions, and then variety of Epilogues, and especially the date-/time-stamping of the entries -- cleverly provides a solid structure to the drifters' story. And Zhadan doesn't shy away from trying other things as well: whiling away time on the train, the narrator's choice of reading material is limited to two booklets Vasia has on him -- and Zhadan presents the Anarchist Cookbook-like contents (yes, suggestions and recipes for all sorts of explosive and destructive devices) of the one he reads verbatim over more than a dozen pages. Similarly, the music group that gives the novel its title is effectively used, first in an anecdote -- Zhadan recalling, with just a touch of nostalgia, the only time he and his brother bought something together -- and then in a much longer section, where the friends listen to and then call in to a radio show about the group.
       Speaking with the radio-show moderator, the narrator admits to some concern about the way things are going: they all keep falling into holes, he suggests, -- increasingly often, and with evermore holes appearing for them to tumble into -- and he feels himself unable to climb out any more. It's a rare acknowledgement of the precariousness of their situation, of his generation and of early 1990s Ukraine -- and not so much a rare moment of doubt but of worry. But the novel doesn't leave them in the pits -- not all of them anyway; if not exactly a new dawn rising, there's a (cautious) sense of some promise and future to the novel's close.
       Despite the (by now far too) familiar tropes and types, and the excessive reliance on excessive alcohol consumption, Depeche Mode stands out among novels of the early post-Soviet transition -- going beyond these, as well as offering a few very nice literary flourishes and twists, early evidence of Zhadan's promise as a writer.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 February 2016

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Depeche Mode: Reviews: Other books by Serhiy Zhadan under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Ukrainian author Serhiy Zhadan (Сергій Вікторович Жадан) was born in 1974.

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