I Live a Life Like Yours: A Memoir by Jan Grue (Norway)

Translated by B. L. Crook

I do not want to live a life of rage and grief. I write it off me. I reject it.”

I Live a Life Like Yours is published by Pushkin Press, and was longlisted for the Barbellion Prize (for authors living with chronic illness and disability, and now in its second year). It was also the first work of Norwegian non-fiction in 50 years to be nominated for the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize.

Jan Grue is a highly successful academic and writer, a father and husband. He also lives with a severe physical disability, and was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at the age of three. His condition was expected to progress, and his limited mobility to deteriorate even more, but that hasn’t been the case, and indeed his childhood diagnosis no longer stands. Nevertheless, he remains a disabled man living in a world that does not cater well for disabled people, even in major progressive societies like Norway, the USA and the Netherlands – all places that he has lived over the years.

He is intelligent, socially adept and ambitious, with supportive family and friends – all of which have helped him to push against the strictures surrounding those living with disability. But he is articulate, erudite and philosophical in recognising the societal impediments that throw up additional obstacles to those trying to navigate the world with a disability. He reads and interprets widely, referencing writers from Michael Foucault, to Erving Goffman, to Joan Didion.

He recognises the invasive procedures to which children with medical conditions and disabilities are subjected to, and which made me reflect on my daughter’s encounters from birth with neurologists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, psychologists, experts in development and neurodisability, autism specialists, radiographers and orthopaedic surgeons after a stroke just before birth.

I was not an institutionalized child. No more so than any other kindergarten or primary school child. However, I was constantly in contact with institutions that do not exist for everyone. I have memories of being examined by doctors and physiotherapists. I am six, seven, eight years old in these memories, in rooms that are a little too cold, in my underwear. Someone is touching the muscles of my arms and legs. I am instructed to walk from one end of the room, turn, and walk back. I know that I am being observed. I don’t know why. Then my parents and I go home.”

“The language of clinics and institutions is the language of depression, expecting little and hoping for even less.”

Jan Grue’s eloquent memoir is great, if heart-breaking, on the internalised sense of shame that living with disability can create, and which was recognised by Foucault in his writing – and how difficult and necessary it is to resist this subjugation:

The clinical gaze creates subjects … The subject always has a self-narrative, she is an active party and learns to believe that her actions are her own, thus the subject comes to believe that she alone bears responsibility for the situation in which she finds herself. Subjugation is an assignment of responsibility without self-determination, resulting in the internalization of guilt, which then becomes shame.”

Grue is good too at articulating the thoughts that whirl around my own mind, which is forever full of what ifs:

It could have been different. It always could have been different. But who would I have been if I hadn’t been born with a muscular disease? There is a lived life and there is an unlived life, and the lived life contains the unlived one as water contains an air bubble.”

This book is important in challenging able-bodied readers to see the world from a different perspective. It is also a book about acceptance.

As the able-bodied parent of a disabled child I found the book didn’t depress me as one might assume, as the points Grue makes simply articulate aspects of life with disability that are already familiar or evident to us as a family, such as the need endlessly to fight institutions and service providers for basic support, in the face of red tape and institutional barriers. And Grue is an inspiring figure for disabled and non-disabled readers alike, because against so many odds he lives, in many way, a ‘normal’, indeed highly successful, life.

And you may ask yourself, Well … how did I get here?” (Talking Heads)

Story of O by Pauline Réage (a pseudonym for Anne Desclos, #1954club, France)

I read Story of O this week, not because I’m starting up a new erotica review site, but because it’s Simon and Kaggsy’s #1954club week and the 1001 books to read before you die book told me that Story of O is a book from 1954 that I should read … before I die. The translator of Story of O wisely seems to have remained anonymous, so I can’t credit them here.

The book’s cover tells us “Before Fifty Shades of Grey there was … Story of O“. (Oh, can I just add before I go on, I did not spend cash money on this book, I got it from the library, to where it will be returning tomorrow.) Fifty Shades of Grey was an unreadable pile of hokum that I did attempt to read on holiday once (why did I take shit erotica on holiday to read while caring for three under-10s?). Anyway, I remember wanting to hurl it across the villa patio and into the pool, but unfortunately I was reading it on my Kindle (for obvious reasons), and didn’t want to smash it.

The front cover endorsement here, then, didn’t exactly whet my appetite. Then, inside the front cover, comes a rave review from Graham Greene, of all people:

A rare thing, a pornographic book well written and without a trace of obscenity”

Ok Graham… Story of O is undoubtedly nearly 300 pages of absolute filth, in which a young fashion photographer is coerced by her boyfriend René to go to a weird Gothic castle in Roissy and be abased and abused by random men for days on end, even to the extent at one point of being forced to sleep in a filthy castle dungeon, chained to the wall. Back at home, he prostitutes her to toff Sir Stephen, who likes anal sex and more whipping (did I mention there’s lot of whipping), and who it turns out is a sort-off half brother/step-brother to René, but with an unexplained title. And English.

O later becomes a kind of Ghislaine Maxwell-type procuress for the torture castle in Roissy (luckily she works with models, you see). One of my daughters is 15, and they had definitely lost me by the time they were corrupting 15-year-old Nathalie, though I’d been lost from around page 15.

Greene’s claims of lack of obscenity I guess must come from the weird glossed over references to body parts. Men have a “sex”, women a “womb” or a “belly”. So, a man might “grab” O “by the womb”, which sounds frankly agonising and also made me picture him as Donald Trump, divesting the narrative of any hint of eroticism as rapidly as O loses her complicated corsetry. And don’t get me onto the “fleeces”.

Shall I go on? You probably want me to stop by now, so I think I will.

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan (France, #1954club)

Translated by Irene Ash

I’ve been reading a couple of French books for the #1954club week, hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. This is a bi-annual week celebrating books first published in a particular year, and I’ve only been organized enough to participate once before but I have read lots of interesting posts over the past couple of years or more.

Bonjour Tristesse is a book (first published in French in 1954) that I have definitely read before, I think as a teenager, but could remember nothing of it, except that I liked it back then, and also maybe liked, even admired, the glamorous but rather diabolical 17-year-old protagonist, Cécile. This time round even Cécile’s 40-year-old playboy father, Raymond, is younger than me, so I came at it from a different perspective: instead of admiring the shallow, manipulative – but essentially neglected – Cécile, I felt faintly sorry for her.

Cécile has been brought up solely by Raymond, after her mother’s death many years before, and having left her restrictive convent boarding school two years earlier is now floating around savouring her freedom, spending much of her time in Paris, and her summers on the French Riviera with her dad, who finds himself a gorgeous new girlfriend every six months.

Cécile’s dad is vain and decadent and not much of a father figure, treating her instead as a confidante and drinking companion. They circulate at glittering parties and they are both pretty hot/fit, and they know it, though Raymond makes no effort to ensure Cécile isn’t preyed upon by older men or sinking too many cocktails.

She takes this in her stride, and it is her father’s very fickleness that creates a sense of stability for Cécile, as she is sure that none of his mistresses – including his current squeeze, the beautiful but dull Elsa – presents a real threat to her status, her total liberty or her sense of security.

Cécile spends her days on this latest holiday sunbathing and flirting, and finds herself an attractive holiday beau, with the uninspiring name of Cyril. However, when her father announces that an old friend of her mother’s, Anne Larsen, will be coming to stay, it throws everything into disarray.

Anne is more cerebral than Raymond (though he can be witty I guess), but is very attractive, poised and sure of herself. Soon after Anne’s arrival he declares himself not only in love with her, but also announces their impending wedding. Elsa is ejected, and Anne soon attempts to impose some rudimentary boundaries on Cécile, who begins to plot a way of restoring the status quo.

Sagan – who led a wild life herself – wrote the novel in her late teens and it shows, but that doesn’t detract from the novel’s pleasures, it simply means that the first person voice is convincingly young:

At forty there could be the fear of solitude, or perhaps a last upsurge of the senses … I had never thought of Anne as a woman, but as an entity … Did he love her, and if so, was he capable of loving her for long? Was there any difference between this new feeling and the affection he had shown Elsa? The sun was making my head spin, and I shut my eyes.”

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (Trinidad and Tobago)

The Mermaid of Black Conch, written by Trinidadian-born author Monique Roffey, was the winner of the Costa Book of Year prize in 2020. It is a book that we recently picked for my book club to read, although we have met very infrequently over the past two years, mainly due to the pandemic. It’s a very enjoyable book – as Jade Cuttle, writing in the UK’s Times newspaper put it: “Picture in your mind a book about mermaids. Now turn that image upside down, set it on fire and pee all over it“. 

Subtitled “A Love Story“, the novel is set in a lush Caribbean island setting, amid acres of forest, albino peacocks, glittering sunshine, giant fig trees, snakes, biblical-level storms and sea. It tells the story of a young, lonely, soon infatuated man, David, and his encounter in 1976 with a mermaid. Once a young woman known as Aycayia, a member of the island’s long-dead indigenous Neo-Taíno people, she was cursed thousands of years beforehand to live for eternity in the form of a mermaid, by other women infuriated and envious of her beauty and the power that her sexuality gave her over their menfolk.

The mermaid is lured close to the shore as she, likewise, is interested in David, who likes to sail the local seas, strumming his guitar, singing and smoking “the finest local ganja”. However, after many centuries at sea, accompanied only by a sea turtle – a cursed old woman – Aycayia’s human side is long-buried.

A group of US bounty hunters also set out to sea one fateful day, and after a gruelling and exhausting battle, the magnificent mermaid, having strayed closer to the shore than was advisable, is eventually hooked out of the ocean, three-quarters-dead, and strung up like a massive fish.

Witnessing her fate, David can’t bear to leave her to death – or worse – at the hands of the hunters, and he stealthily spirits her away (in a far-from-romantic wheelbarrow). As he coaxes her back to health he seeks to earn her trust, and the pair gradually become closer and closer. Slowly, bit by bit, she becomes less like a strangely alluring beached marine animal and more like a gorgeous woman, but their love affair has more insurmountable differences than the average pairing.

Aycayia develops close bonds with other local inhabitants too, including Reggie, a young deaf boy, with whom she develops an immediate connection, picking up sign language faster than spoken language. But there are others who are keen to see her restored to the hunters, who continue to regard their catch as nothing more than a potential source of income.

Issues around racism, misogyny and the repression of women’s sexuality, the continuing impact of colonialism, and the ‘othering’ of those with a difference proliferate and underpin the narrative, but with a light touch that doesn’t detract from the unspooling of this subverted love story.

Stories of romance involving merpeople are relatively common, from Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid to Guillermo del Toro’s film The Shape of Water. This book, with its dark-skinned Caribbean mermaid gives a new spin to the fairy tale tropes though, and is inspired very loosely by an ancient Nao-Taíno legend. Comprising third-person narrative, poetic reflections in the voice of the mermaid Aycayia herself and later journal entries, written by David as a much older man, in 2015, the book weaves together a captivating and strangely believable combination of myth and romance. 

“He had seen her shoulders, her head, her breasts and her long black hair like ropes, all sea mossy and jook up with anemone and conch shell. A merwoman. He stared at the spot of her appearance for some time. He took a good look at his spliff; was it something real strong he smoke this morning?”

Review of The Following Story by Cees Nooteboom (Netherlands)

Translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke

I’ve not stuck to my reading plans lately, but I will probably come back to that in another post. Instead, I’ve found myself reading a few short international reads, including this one, The Following Story by acclaimed Dutch writer Cees (Cornelis) Nooteboom. Although short, it’s not an easy book, and I’m not really sure my reading did it justice.

The book opens with former classics teacher Herman Mussert waking in a hotel room in Portugal – the same hotel in which he slept with another man’s wife 20 years before. What’s odd is, he clearly remembers falling asleep in his own bed at home in Amsterdam the night before.

“I had woken up with the ridiculous feeling that I might be dead, but whether I was actually dead, or had been dead, or vice versa, I could not ascertain … And evidently I was still somewhere: pretty soon it would also become apparent that I could walk, look around, eat (the sweetish mother’s-milk-and-honey taste of those little buns the Portuguese have for breakfast lingered in my mouth for hours). And I was able to pay with real money. This last, as far as I was concerned, was the most convincing evidence of all.”

The Mussert of the Lisbon-fling era was a crusty classicist, perhaps in early middle age – the sort of man, I feel, who would have been middle-aged even in his twenties though, when he was probably already wearing a tweed jacket complete with leather elbow patches. He unfortunately shares a name with a famous Dutch wartime fascist leader, while his students nickname him Socrates, presumably due to his tedious learnedness. Since losing his job he has written travel guides under the pen name Doctor Strabo, “a moronic activity whereby I earn my living” (Nooteboom himself, it should be noted, is also a successful travel writer!).

The book is written in the first person, and we follow Mussert as he wanders around Lisbon, re-treading the route he trod two decades before in a faintly penumbral fashion, and musing on the key events of his life, which led to the loss of his job and of his mistress. He is also forced to reflect on the nature of his own current existence – what the hell is going on?

The second half of the book is even more surreal, as Mussert boards a ferry with six others, and hidden truths are revealed.

“There was no conversation as yet. We knew at once that we belonged together. My dream have always born a disturbing resemblance to life, as if even in my sleep I could not come up with something new, but now it was the other way round, now at last my life resembled a dream. Dreams are closed systems, in which everything fits to perfection.”

There is no plot as such, though there is a metaphysical mystery to unravel. I found part of the story, which focused around a relationship between a student and a teacher, quite queasy-making. Meanwhile Nooteboom’s raw material, in emotionally cloistered throwback Mussert, seems uninspiring, but he is fully realised, with a distinctive, consistent voice.

The book is short as I’ve already noted – at only some 25,000 words it was published in 1991 for the annual Dutch “book week”, as part of which a well-known author is commissioned to write a short work that is given away free with each purchase in book shops (as a Boekenweekgeschenk or book week gift). The Following Story appeared in English translation in 1994, and is my third Dutch book.

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov (Ukraine)

Translated by George Bird

Death and the Penguin isn’t a new novel: I first read it around 2001, when it appeared in English translation, and I’ve gone back to it in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, although it deals of course not with current events but with the ruptures and recalibrations of the immediate post-Soviet period (it was first published in Russian in 1996).

The Kyiv in Death and the Penguin, then, is not the war-battered Kyiv of today, or the more cosmopolitan, confident and European-facing Kyiv of the 2014-22 era. Instead it is a cheerfully bleak, surreal and morally compromised Kyiv that is adapting to the absurdities of independence, unmoored from the collective certainties of the USSR.

Viktor is an aspiring short-story writer who lives alone except for his gloomy King Penguin, Misha, acquired the year before when the animals were sold off by the bankrupt local zoo. Viktor approaches a local newspaper office looking for work, and to his surprise is offered a freelance job composing obituaries (‘obelisks‘) of local notables on his home typewriter.

Soon, however, he notices that strange things are happening. People keep dying, almost as soon as he’s handed in their completed obituary to the newspaper chief, and he senses that he’s becoming embroiled in a dangerous situation that he doesn’t quite understand.

The Editor-in-Chief greeted Viktor cordially, as if he hadn’t seen him for a year. Coffee, cognac and $100 in a long elegant envelope made their appearance. It was quite a celebration.

“Well,” said Igor Lvovich, raising his glass of cognac, “a start’s been made. Let’s hope our remaining obelisks don’t hang around for long either.”

“How did he die?” Viktor asked.

“Fell from a sixth floor window – was cleaning it for some reason, apparently, though it wasn’t his. And at night.”

Viktor is unquestioning, fatalistic, or simply pragmatic: his uneasiness is compensated for by his sudden wealth, particularly as his fees are significantly inflated when he starts being regularly invited to attend funerals in a professional capacity, formally flanked by his perpetually mournful penguin.

What’s more, his loneliness is cured, too, as he meets friendly militiamen and penguinologists, acquires a little orphaned sort-of daughter and even an accidental live-in girlfriend. But we know that an ersatz family life can’t be what fate ultimately has lined up for Viktor.

Kurkov has suggested that the penguin represents the fish-out-of-water alienation and isolation of people during the uncertain transitions of the post-soviet period. Misha is endearingly expressive though as a character in his own right, with an implacable stare, a special spot behind the sofa where he goes to stand when he’s in a mood, and a fondness for a bathtub full of cold water and fish straight from the freezer.

… But roaming the dark corridor, banging every so often against the closed kitchen door, was Misha the penguin. Overcome at last with a feeling of guilt, Viktor let him in. Misha paused at the table, using his almost one metre of height to see what was on it. He looked at the cup of tea, then shifting his gaze to Viktor, considered him with the heartfelt sincerity of a worldy-wise Party functionary.

If Death and Penguin can by now be considered a historical novel of sorts, grounded as it is the Ukraine of 30 years ago, Kurkov has become a prominent political commentator as well as a novelist. He has written in his fiction about the recent conflict in the Donbas (in Grey Bees, published in 2021), while he’s currently providing a weekly personal commentary on the impact of the current full-scale war with Russia on BBC Radio 4.

Review of Ali and Ava (2021 British film)

Given the round-the-clock news misery of the last month/last two years, I’m really pleased to be able to recommend an involving, big-hearted film that many people will warm to.

On limited release, Ali and Ava follows happy-go-lucky Ali, played by the always watchable Adeel Akhtar (I guess he had to be an actor with that surname), as he forms an unlikely relationship with the older Ava (played by Claire Rushrook).

Ali is a 40-ish, puppyish, washed-up raver and former DJ who collects rents for his family’s letting business. His marriage to the much younger, very attractive Runa, a student, has broken down, although he has shied away from telling his close-knit British-Pakistani family about their estrangement, and they continue to miserably share a property when the film opens.

Ava is a middle-aged single mum and youngish granny, who works as a teaching assistant in a local primary school and feels that her best years are behind her. She’s swept up by Ali’s effortless ebullience and gentle enthusiasm, but the frictions and insecurities that come hand in hand with their family ties threaten to cause insurmountable obstacles.

This isn’t a miserable film though at all. There are emotional ups and downs, but ultimately it is a warm, optimistic and sometimes very funny watch, that comes with the added bonus of an excellent 1990s rave-influenced soundtrack. Set in northern England, in Bradford, there are also some beautifully shot cityscapes of an urban landscape that is not usually exactly renowned for its gorgeousness.

The movie is directed and written by Clio Barnard, and it reminded me of a Ken Loach film that’s had all that relentless misery squeezed out of it. Maybe you can tell that I really loved it. Perhaps take a tissue to wipe away a little sentimental tear, if you’re that way inclined.

Review of Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi (Albania)

“I never asked myself about the meaning of freedom until the day I hugged Stalin. From close up, he was much taller than I expected. Our teacher, Nora, had told us that imperialists and revisionists liked to emphasize how Stalin was a short man. He was, in fact, not as short as Louis XIV, whose height, she said, they – strangely – never brought up. In any case, she added gravely, focusing on appearances rather than what really mattered was a typical imperialist mistake. Stalin was a giant, and his deeds were far more relevant than his physique.” (p. 3)

You might imagine that Free would be the driest of books. Lea Ypi is around my age, but the parallels stop there, as she is also an intimidatingly successful Professor of Political Theory at the LSE, who speaks about seven languages fluently. Her other books have titles like The Architectonic of Reason: Purposiveness and Systematic Unity in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

Free is much more accessible (I assume: I can’t say I’ve attempted the Kant book!), a 2021 memoir of Ypi’s childhood and adolescence growing up in Albania, one of the most isolated former communist states in Eastern Europe, during the ’80s and ’90s. It was on many “best of” lists at the end of 2021, as well as being shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction (basically the non-fiction Booker).

I was always going to be drawn to this memoir, since I hoover up life writing like an addict and I’ve been compiling, commissioning and editing books on South-Eastern European politics for the past 20 years. This personal account has wide appeal outside my corner of niche nerdery though, as the young Ypi is hugely engaging and often very funny, while as political events unfold from a child’s-eye viewpoint she becomes gradually aware of the contradictions of socialist dictator Enver Hoxha’s political ideology.

The governments and international financial institutions that jumped in to advise on Albania’s “shock therapy” transition to capitalism and Western-style democracy don’t come away scot-free. There is a great passage flagging up the way that communist jargon is replaced almost overnight by a similar breed of essentially meaningless IMF-ese:

“‘Civil society’ was the new term recently added to the political vocabulary, more or less as a substitute for ‘Party’ … It joined other new keywords, such as ‘liberalization’, which replaced ‘democratic centralism’; ‘privatization’, which replaced ‘collectivization’; ‘transparency’, which replaced ‘self-criticism’; ‘transition’, which stayed the same but now indicated the transition from socialism to liberalism instead of the transition from socialism to communism; and ‘fighting corruption’, which replaced ‘anti-imperialist struggle’.” (pp 215-2016)

Effortlessly mixing bathos, humour and tragedy with intimate personal history – Ypi’s family are fully-realised, well-rounded people, with all the affection and exasperation that implies – and wearing her enormous erudition lightly, this is an endlessly informative and most importantly, perhaps, incredibly enjoyable account. Given current events though, it may be that Ypi was growing up not at the end of history, but at the beginning.

Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine (Reading Ireland month)

I’ve not been reading much as I’m either working or doom-scrolling Twitter and foreign affairs news – refreshing the websites of the BBC, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, the Kyiv Independent, The Financial Times, The Economist, The Guardian and The Times. I have too many subscriptions, plus my work is foreign affairs orientated, but being well-informed doesn’t make me any less powerless. However, I was determined to participate in Cathy’s Reading Ireland month, and here it is.

Wendy Erskine’s latest collection of short stories, Dance Move, appeared earlier in 2022, and I’m yet to read it. I have read her debut collection of short stories, Sweet Home, however, which was first published in 2018 by The Stinging Fly press. The Stinging Fly literary magazine and press has attracted lots of interest over recent years, largely due to Sally Rooney’s role as editor. Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends won widespread praise and enjoyed big commercial success (though I didn’t love it), and her addictive and emotionally resonant second novel Normal People was Booker-longlisted, while the subsequent TV series was pretty much perfect (with some fab outfits). I’m not big on tortured millennials, but I did love Normal People, though I never get why people don’t just tell each other how they feel in relationships, so that part maddened me – and that aspect of Rooney’s storylines is basically her USP. I’ve always gone all in, personally! Anyway, I’m really not here to talk about Sally Rooney – I gave up on her third and latest novel, and I’m so over endless self-indulgent whinnying and whining by privileged, educated people who just need to make a bloody decision or decide to trust someone for once. Wait till they’re my age, then they’ll have something to moan about – ha! pah!

Deep breaths and back to Sweet Home, which was later picked up by Picador – it published it for a less niche audience in 2020. The 10 stories that make up Erskine’s collection are Belfast-set, and tell tales of ordinary people’s lives, in a way that transcends the everyday to reveal moments of strangeness and profundity. The opening, and longest story, To All Their Dues, is an enormously assured three-hander, which reveals the insecurities and emotional baggage underlying the unknowingly interconnected lives of a beauty salon owner, a local thug and racketeer, and his long-suffering girlfriend. Another particularly great story is coming of age tale Observation, in which a teenage girl becomes increasingly obsessed with her best friend’s tales of illicit sex with her mother’s much younger boyfriend. But, really, they’re all more or less great.

Erskine mentions Lucy Caldwell in her acknowledgements, and her style is reminiscent of Caldwell’s work in its setting and perspicacity, without ever being derivative. Erskine has a dry wit and a very humorous turn of phrase that lightens these stories. I’m not usually a big fan of short story collections, but Sweet Home is a really enjoyable collection of fiction, which manages to entertain while packing a real emotional punch.

Servant of the People (Ukrainian TV show)

Over the last couple of weeks we in the West have been shunted into an unwelcome parallel reality, with the spectre of World War 3 hovering in our peripheral vision. The Russian double-speak drives me to distraction: “What, hospitals? No, we didn’t bomb a hospital. Those pictures are fake.” “The Ukrainians are deliberately bombing their own civilians.” I can’t read books any more, I just refresh news sites. Meanwhile my brother messages me to say he’s been watching videos of beheaded Russian soldiers on Twitter. Quite likely these invaders were conscripted boys. It feels like the end of days. Perhaps if Ukraine had not relinquished its nuclear weapons in 1994, in exchange for security guarantees from Russia, the UK and the USA, then – ironically – this conflict might not have happened.

Ukraine’s populist President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has emerged as a war hero. His charismatic, groomed, witty appearances prior to the conflict contrast with his wartime khaki shirt, grizzled face and defiant rhetoric. As everyone now knows, he was first a TV executive and comic actor who voiced the Ukrainian version of the Paddington movies, and who, in 2015-19, produced and starred in a TV series, Servant of the People, about an ordinary man who becomes the unlikely President of Ukraine. Zelenskiy’s real life political party, established in 2018, shared the name of the TV series.

At the time of writing, the first three episodes of Servant of the People can be watched on All 4 in the UK. It’s a discombobulating and poignant watch, given the circumstances. As depicted in the series, Kyiv is of course an attractive, modern city, not a war zone: pristine, bustling, people go about their lives in schools, cafes and shops.

Zelenskiy plays his role for laughs. He’s Vasyl Petrovych Goloborodko, a hapless history teacher, who makes a sweary, impassioned off the cuff speech about political corruption that is surreptitiously filmed by a student and then goes viral. A crowd-funded electoral campaign and an unexpected electoral success later, and the series presents us with the perfect fish-out-of-water scenario, and Vasyl’s sudden presidential power and influence is bemusing for both him and his family. The jokes are funny, a mix of satire and slapstick, while the three episodes that I’ve seen give a sense of the overt Western orientation of Ukraine – which has evidently become intolerable for Putin. The current reality means the comedy is infused with pathos and a new dystopian slant. Realistically, Zelenskiy may have only a short time to live. I hope he survives the conflict.

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