The Sky Wept Fire: My Life as a Chechen Freedom Fighter is the winner of the English Pen Award, and has been translated from its original Russian by Anna Gunin. It is a memoir which tells of author Mikail Eldin’s experiences in the conflicts in Chechnya during the 1990s. Throughout, he has aimed to trace ‘the unfolding of the conflict’, and the blurb states that in consequence, he ‘presents a unique portrait of the lives of the Chechen resistance’.
The preface sets out Eldin’s reasons for writing such a memoir, and it begins as follows: ‘It is only possible to write beautifully about war if you have never witnessed it from within… And so much happened that perhaps would have been better forgotten, but it was my duty to remember… I have tried to be as neutral as possible in my account of these events, yet at the same time I remain deeply partisan… about everything I saw’. He goes on to say that he has penned his memories for all of those who died within the conflict, as a memorial of sorts to the masses, and to the country he once so adored.
The Sky Wept Fire: My Life as a Chechen Freedom Fighter has been split into three sections – ‘Ragnarok’, ‘From the Wheel of Time into the Circle of Pain’ and ‘Autumn Shot Dead’. Maps of Chechnya and its geographical location within Russia have been included. Eldin has chosen to go through the entire conflict in a chronological manner, weaving his own memories with factual details included at every juncture – the casualties, Russian propaganda, the skewed news which is presented on the television, musings about how futile yet fascinating warfare is, coming to terms with widespread deaths, the history of the Russian Army’s leadership, the attitudes of the soldiers involved, sheltering in cellars with other civilians, getting used to living in a war-torn city, and odd sights such as the selling of arms in local markets around the capital by both sides.
Eldin began his career as an arts journalist, but after the Second Chechen War, he had become ‘a battle-hardened reporter and mountain partisan who had endured torture and imprisonment’. Since Chechnya came into being as a sovereign state in its own right, Eldin states that, ‘Russia began hatching schemes to meddle with and destroy Chechen autonomy’. The main part of The Sky Wept Fire begins when he describes the blasts which he ran towards, citing his position as a journalist for a ‘neutral’ publication as his reason for interviewing both sides of the conflict: ‘Everything began with two huge blasts rocking the centre of Grozny, capital of Chechnya, a country enjoying its fourth year of independence. It was 26 November 1994’. Throughout, Eldin paints an interesting portrait of the conflict and those who were involved in it, from Chechen civilians to Army commanders. The way in which he writes is harrowing at times, particularly with regard to the descriptions of those who were killed.
Despite the interest which The Sky Wept Fire clearly holds, the prose style is a little confusing at times, switching as it does from first to second person from one chapter to the next. This gives the entirety an oddly inconsistent feel. The prose is a little repetitive at times – for example, Sheikh Kunta-Haji Kishiev is called a ‘great saint’ twice on the same page. Sadly, the translation feels a little clunky at times, making the book seem a little too old-fashioned in places.