Conversations in Polish Detroit

Foto: Beniamin Gorgoń

By Ilya Kharkow (He/Him)

Trigger warning: This story contains violence and mentions of war. 

This is the foreword to a collection of short stories by Ilya Kharkow, a writer from Ukraine.

When he asked me if I think that only mentally healthy people can build relationships, I replied that healthy people scare me. I said that by choosing a partner, I am accepting his traumas. But these traumas must be graceful. He said that I judge a person by the depth of his traumas. He smiled brighter than the fluorescent lamp hanging above us. That smile was a red flag. That smile told me that I would run. Three days later, I fled, unable to bear the immersion into the depths of his traumas.

I am a coward. But not because I fled the war instead of defending my homeland. My homeland wants to kill me just because I have a dick. I do not accept such kinship, and now I am even ashamed. I am a coward because I ran away from a compact Belarusian guy with a humanitarian visa, which is issued to victims of repression. And the point is not that here he is sitting in front of me so handsome, pliable, that I ran away from him. The point is that he proclaimed hopes for me that I did not justify. And I so wanted to console all those who refused to fight, because they are the heroes for me.

I promised myself not to fall in love with the victims. The problem is that I’m only attracted to two types of people: heroes and victims. War generously breeds both. In a compact Belarusian guy I saw a hero, but escaped from the victim. Protests. Jail. Volunteering. And again prison. And then the choice: a summons to the army or criminal liability. It was not even his participation in the protest movement that made him a hero, but the ability to choose his own option – emigration.

It was there, in a restaurant, illuminated by artificial light, that we confided fragile secrets to each other. In between, I busted the myth that every Ukrainian is a hero just because he’s Ukrainian. And the compact Belarusian guy showed that the statement “there are no good Russians, just like Belarusians” has nothing to do with reality, and reeks of Nazi sentiments. Speaking in Russian, referring to a common culture whose borders were not national borders, we built communication based on experiences that turned out to be pretty damn similar. And even putting aside the idea of fraternal peoples, our conversation felt like incest.

The enormity of the interruption of the carnal love of brother for brother is the essence of war. It lies not only in the lists of the dead, bombed houses and mobilisation. War is about how a person experiences it. On the way he carries it with him when going to a date or a funeral, returning home from a bomb shelter and standing in line for humanitarian aid. The longer the war lasts, the more attention it occupies at the household level. War turns into an object and becomes covered with dust, standing between a framed photograph and a bottle of cologne. Everyday life makes everything a little less beautiful, but war, mixed with everyday life, literally turns into a bodily ailment, bloated by hopelessness.

Just as a cancer patient carries cancer with them for a walk, my characters carry war with them on dates. Each meeting, even if it happens under the most miserable pretext, is always a meeting of two potential partners who recognise that the chances of living together all their lives are so small that both of them are ready to be satisfied not even with love, but with a shadow of love. Tomorrow they could be mobilised. The rocket could hit their house. Tomorrow the heart may not be able to withstand the new reality. However, the shadow of love is never enough.

Why dream of something more when you live in a mousetrap? On the first day of the war, Ukraine closed the borders for the male population from 18 to 60 years old. Would the war have continued to this day if this had not happened? Volunteers quickly ran out. Now boys are sent to the battlefield by force. The country beat its sons and pushed them into trucks. All over the country, the military and the police are hunting for guys with subpoenas. But you can’t talk about it. As well as it is impossible to say out loud that someone wants peaceful negotiations. It is impossible to condemn those who ask for an increase in the supply of weapons. You can’t admit that you don’t want to pick up a machine gun. After visiting the morgue, I thought that I would never smell anything worse. I was wrong; military rhetoric reeks worse still.

The point here is not that both Ukraine and Russia have turned to propaganda, and now the peoples have something to fight for. It’s not that we’re divided and pitted against each other like stupid fighting cocks. The fact is that the government is a system that will feed on citizens until it finally feels safe. The enemy is not “imperial Russia”. The enemy is not “nazi Ukraine”. The enemy is the government. Any. Because the government is a system. Because the system does what it wants. 

Love, incest or just worldly stupidity, the system doesn’t care. It has its own needs, and the person inside the system is not a person, but a mobilisation reserve. But I don’t even call for a fight against the system. Everything has its time and place, and the university years are the place to fight concepts. Although even that time would be better spent looking for love. Your whole life is worth spending just on this. The rest makes little sense.

I will not go into polemics about the causes of the war. That’s been said enough. I will not look for someone to blame. But I will state my fault. And my fault lies in the fact that I, being a writer and philologist, did not captivate as many people with literature and culture in general as I could. Being a sophisticated reader, I turned up my nose in disgust at those who did not know the taste of literature. But it is not enough to be the bearer of valuable knowledge; one must also be able to tempt with it.

Any creativity neutralises aggression, which means it can prevent war as the highest form of aggression. I am to blame for the war. And my fault is that I was too self-contained. I built internal boundaries, encouraging others to do the same. So we separated ourselves from each other. Of course, the alienation of the people made the state border weaker, but more importantly, it made us weaker. Therefore, now my goal is not only to speak loud and clear, but also to speak so that I can be heard. I’m in charge of finding the ears. Fortunately, there is always a heart under the ears. Ukrainian, Belarusian, Russian… it doesn’t matter. Heart. And I turn to it.

It always amazed me that love can make guys callous. But it is worth being a little more attentive, because then it suddenly becomes obvious that it is not love that leads to callousness, but its absence, its departure and a terrible lack. War is a place where love is left for later. It is impossible to love and kill at the same time, no matter how beautifully war authors write about it. The fight is still too much like sex, but we must admit that this is just a similarity. Fighting is no substitute for sensual touch. If I decided to fight with a compact Belarusian guy, he would hardly thank me for it.

But we didn’t fight. We walked around the old cemeteries. He told me about his mother, who was brought up in an orphanage. She didn’t know her father until she was thirty. But here he showed up. He sent a letter inviting her to visit. Invitation accepted. She and her tiny son are going to Siberia. There they are met by an old man who lives with his mother, who pretends to be deaf and blind. That way she has fun. She has schizophrenia. And the man isn’t mentally stable either, because they have been living together for so long that they share not only shelter, but also illnesses.

They arrived in the morning. In the evening they are already kicked out. Was it worth it, I ask. Was it worth for the father to show up thirty years later to kick them out of the house again, or was it still better to remain in the shadows? The compact Belarusian does not give an unequivocal answer, but… soon he decided to meet with him one on one. They walked. Handsome grey-haired man. Talked a lot. They laughed.

If he decided on a second meeting with this man, then my meeting with him, which only partially satisfied the thirst for love, was justified. This means that my desire to cure, although it hurts, still heals more. This means that my game of the saviour is humanism, and not a crime against the wounded. So, everything is in its place. But why should I cure someone?

When I go on dates, I imagine myself as a dark psychoanalyst rushing to the aid of a patient crucified by lust. On dates, people tend to be a little more outspoken than in real life. On dates, people are vulnerable because they have to openly say that they are looking for love. Even if you came for MDMA-fuelled group sex in a local dealer’s rented apartment, you still want love. And the less often you get it, the more MDMA you need, the more partners you let into yourself. The same thing happens in war. No matter what medals they give you. No matter how convincingly they tell you that you take up arms to defend your country, your family, your loved one. First of all, you kill. You get a taste. You become a killer.

In one case, a drug addict seeks love and trips over social disapproval. In another case, the killer becomes addicted to cruelty and receives public respect and honour. As a dark psychoanalyst, I will only go to someone who is able to recognise the real state of things. And here I come. Instead of heroes and drug addicts, I see naked guys who need to be told: “You are needed and important. Even if you stop being a hero, we will love you.” This is how my stories are born. I trade them for temporary healing, dark counselling. But why is my psychoanalysis dark? Yes, because one of the most important rules of psychoanalysis is that the psychoanalyst should not fall in love with patients. My sessions begin with love.

Of course, this approach has many opponents. My opponents say that I am not a therapist, and that it’s me who needs a therapist. So, that is true. Every therapist needs a therapist. There is nothing to be ashamed of. But they tell me that my desire to help is complex. That I assert myself by helping others. It’s as if I’m descending to the level of a patient in order to help him. As if I’m doing this for the sense of self-importance that arises in me in the process. As if I’m practising self-interest in its purest form. Concentrate. Have I heard of medical ethics? Am I betraying my patients by turning their stories into prose?

The thing is that dark sessions of psychoanalysis are conducted tete-a-tete and are aimed at healing one person. While the goal of the prose is to heal a large number of people. Yes, and I do it because I also have a trauma that I tried to treat in all possible ways, but I did not heal it. In the process, I discovered methods that can help others. I’m glad to be helpful. I share my experience. But while I heal others, I still cherish the hope that I can heal myself. Chiron did the same and became an ancient Greek myth. I’m turning this game into a collection of erotic prose.

Take a look! Look! What a pathetic attempt at the government’s desire to cushion the pain of war with statistics. They say three people died and seven were hospitalised. I hear the weeping from three funerals and the rustle of prescriptions written for seven patients. I hear them calling relatives on the phone. The next of kin ask for prescriptions for cheaper medication. But even in these conversations, I don’t hear anyone standing up for the guys. 

A guy in Ukraine has no such choice as: “Defend his homeland or go to a safe place.” He must. “The country is more important than his life,” so they say in Ukraine. The disgust I felt for this phrase turned into twelve stories. Twelve stories about war and sex. Twelve months have passed since the beginning of a full-scale war in Ukraine, and now February has come again. Twelve months… that is how long my cousin hasn’t left his flat, being afraid not of a Russian soldier with a machine gun, but of a Ukrainian military with a summons. He is scared, but the patriarchal society forbids him to express fear. I grew up without a father, patriarchy looks to me more like a crook than a force to be reckoned with, and therefore I am not scared.

I started writing at fourteen, and at the same time I began to adhere to my first literary principle: “The author must dare what the reader does not dare.” Egor Letov sang: “I will be dying, and you will be watching.” I do pretty much the same thing. And that’s where I lost my fear. So, despise me. Negative feelings turn into diamonds under the pressure of analysis and arousal.

Yes, my diamonds turn into paintings that feel like Francis Bacon paintings. These pictures are my strength and my weakness. The irony is that I have a deep distaste for Bacon’s paintings. But his work is so similar to mine. The idea of predestination is not close to me, but still, my healing and my texts control me more than I control them. Something incomprehensible makes me pull out gloomy pictures from those I go on a date with.

Having hung a two-story Polish apartment with gloomy paintings of mental deviations, I text my therapist and get drunk with him. I find peace in this. The therapist advises me about the same as I advise my lovers. And yet, in a conversation with him, I admit that I built a jewellery store, but built a cabinet of curiosities. Naturally, after this, there is a need to get drunk with a therapist and ask: “Was it worth the effort?”

I get the answer not from the therapist, but from the house opposite, from one of its windows. Climbing to the top floor, I see a plasma TV in the window. Every evening someone invariably plays games on this TV. I saw it coming home when I had the idea for the first story – call Port Street to hear about why not everyone wants to be de-occupied. I saw someone continue to play when I returned from Wroclaw, writing a story there about a girl who decided to have a relationship with her own rapist only because there was no one closer abroad. Then I reproached myself that the story took too much time. I watched someone play games on the way home with a friend from Ukraine who gave me a story about sex at a military checkpoint. And she asked me, looking at the bright TV screen: “Have you seen who lives there?” 

When I was drunk returning home from therapy, I saw him. It was a guy my age. With a beard. In a white t-shirt. About my height. He spent every evening playing games. Then I decided that even if my prose is bad, I will at least try to do something. I’ll try to counter propaganda. Hatred. Hostility. The guy from the window across the street didn’t even try.

War is not my topic. This collection of short stories will not describe military equipment, enemy strategies, tactical tricks. You can read about that in the newspapers. My stories are about something else. The main thing in them is not war, but people. The tears of one guy are more important to me than the borders of the whole state.

“Whose Crimea?”, the compact Belarusian guy asks me. How glad he is to see me. How genuinely he smiles.

“There is no Crimea. I’m thirty, and I’ve never been there”

He tells me about the countries he has visited. Talks about different cities. He says that he ate delicious falafel in Georgia. In Turkey, he fell in love with a Catholic man. For some reason, I tell him that Jean Genet left the rights to his works to a young lover who could not even write. Arab tightrope walker and great French writer.

“Why write books at all? Why do you write?”, asks the compact Belarusian. At any other time in my life, I would have smirked, but war reminds me of duty. I’m starting to be tempted…

My stories are not about Ukraine needing missiles because it is fighting for democratic values. Democratic values that have never been established in Ukraine are the background for my stories, the scenery of a crumbling lie. That is why it is damned pleasant for me to write the foreword to this collection of short stories in Lodz, a city that, as it collapses, gives me a sense of the triumph of decadence.

Big city with amazing architecture. Gingerbread houses. Deep libraries. A city in decline. Lodz is a hero city and a victim city. He showed me that the two extremes are manifestations of the same thing. He showed me the absurdity of my vow not to fall in love with the victims, because it alienated me and the heroes. The Polish version of the name – Łódź – looks Gothic. Decorated with cuts like a real saint. It’s in his spirit. It is difficult to walk along the rusting and creaking streets and not think of Jean Genet.

My three-day meeting with a Belarusian in Lodz is an infernal meeting, and he does not even know what it means. Nails are scattered along the roads. Every third street is under reconstruction. Every second smells like fire, dust, and an abandoned house. I love this city because it feels like real life, and life tends to die. Lodz is a military man who recognises himself not as a hero, but as a murderer. Lodz is a drug addict looking for love. I fell in love with Lodz. Now this is my favourite city. My cure for a traumatic February turned out to be a diagnosis and a recipe that I came up with. Twelve stories – the story of our illness. The war started twelve months ago. I would like to believe that each victim will find his own Lodz.

“I haven’t watched the news for a long time. One propaganda. But you confirmed my suspicions. I saw a couple of videos in which the Ukrainian military sent guys to fight by force”

“There were not a couple of such cases. That’s why my Ukrainian colleagues move around the city on bikes – it’s easier to escape this way”

This guy is an immigrant. He understands me. Besides Poland, he lived in Ireland, France and Belgium. He says that Belgium is even more divided than Ukraine. He says that he has never met a mentally healthy person in any country.

“Is it even worth looking for such a person?”

Then I say that I have a couple of stories for him. In these stories, I described that not everyone who goes to war voluntarily comes from good intentions. I described a silent date in complete darkness and how the criteria for a potential partner sometimes overshadow the partner himself. I described how my illness progressed without naming it. I am trying to heal my wound that pushes me to save others. I believe that with love I cure, and do not injure even more. I do not believe in the government, and I see how dangerous it is to believe in it in time of war. Suddenly my compact friend asks:

“Do you want to fuck or to be fucked?”

I say that he will understand it from my stories. Then he asks me to read them naked.

“I’m ready to get naked if you read my stories out loud”


Interested in talking to Ilya about his work and options for publishing ? He can be reached at [email protected]

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