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Winner of the 2008 Big Book Award

On the surface, Vladimir Makanin’s Asan is a stream-of-consciousness account of events in the life of the Russian manager of a military warehouse in Chechnia. Deeper down, Asan is less a book about Russia’s Chechen wars than a novel showing how war forces participants and observers to piece together narratives that explain or justify actions.

At the centre of Makanin’s narrive is major Aleksandr Sergeevich Zhilin, nicknamed Asan by his fellow officers. He finds himself running a supply depot during both the first and second wars, supplying the Russian troops with fuel--and running his own little business on the side. A basically honest man, Major Zhilin is still one of those corrupt officers who used the war to make money for themselves, something that enables him to protect injured or runaway soldiers, and help desperate mothers ransom their sons who have been captured by Chechen forces. Is Major Zhilin a self-centered schemer, or a modern-day Russian Robin Hood? A bit of both, it seems.

Like most "Chechen" works, Asan is at its heart a tragedy, and full of the brutal details of the Chechen wars, where there were no real good guys; rape, pillage, torture, and murder were all commonplace; and even support officers in the rear could find themselves held at gunpoint or pawing through piles of dismembered corpses. But it juxtaposes that brutality with flashes of lyricism and heartfelt sympathy for the people caught up in the war. In the novel, Asan is both the name of a bloodthirsty mythological figure and of a person trying to do the most good he can in bad circumstances, and maybe stay alive against the odds. 

Asan patches multiple stories together to form a rough novel about rough topics. Of course war, as Makanin reminds readers on several of Asan’s pages, is an absurd venture. You can’t understand it, says Zhilin, and there’s no logic. In short, truth slips and myths gain strength as Zhilin attempts to make sense of events, his actions, and his life. Asan is not about the kinds of war truths we expect from newspapers. It’s about how people try to order chaos by transforming war’s realities, commodities as elusive as sun bunnies, into a myth. Novel's message about money, truth, and war are important reflections of sociopolitical life in today’s world.

The most important thing in the book isn’t the topic, the scenes, the double break with genre, or the irony of the story but the character, the central figure. Makanin hit the mark, he DISCOVERED: he discovered a character whose biography and way of life could be the key to understanding an era, a metaphor for contemporary life. -- Lev Danilkin, a literary critic

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