timely fictions: Graham Hurley's Kyiv
A meeting of past and present
It’s rarely the case that opening a book of historical fiction has such pertinence to contemporary events but beginning Graham Hurley’s most recent novel Kyiv towards the of March 2022 provided just such a moment. As I settled down on my sofa to read the opening paragraphs of the novel, Russian troops were beginning their march on Kyiv and the slow encirclement of the city that made it seem a full-scale attack on the Ukrainian capital was imminent. Hurley’s novel, set predominantly during September 1941, covering the flight of the Soviets from and the march of Nazi troops into Kyiv, and depicting a city under attack and occupation, consequently felt very relevant and almost too close for comfort. This discomfort was only increased as I read on: fact and fiction, it seemed, were beginning to merge in real life, played out nightly on my phone screen as I doom-scrolled through the day’s horrifying news from the contemporary Ukrainian war front.
The novel’s pertinent depictions of a Ukraine torn apart by both the departing Soviets who boobytrapped much of the capital’s infrastructure before leaving, and the incoming Nazis, initially hailed as ‘liberators’ by the population but soon discovered to be even more ruthless than the Soviets, is a timely reminder to readers of Ukraine’s troubled past, a violent history in which it has repeatedly been subject to attack, to invasion, to violence, to ruthless subjection to the rules of changing occupiers. As Hurley puts is so succinctly: ‘One occupation was about to end. Another set of thieves were only days away from taking over the city’ (2021, p. 91).
A Historical Novelist
Since the publication of Rules of Engagement, his first novel, in 1991, Graham Hurley has established himself not only as an accomplished writer of international and police thrillers but also as a writer of hard-hitting historical fiction, mostly set during the Second World War. Kyiv, the sixth in The Spoils of War novel series, follows the successful Last Flight to Stalingrad (2021) which I had the pleasure to review for this blog already. Kyiv, however, takes Hurley’s writing to an altogether different level, showing a maturity and critical attitude towards his historical subject matter that makes him deserving of considerable public and critical attention. This is a masterful novel: a war narrative, a spy thriller, and a historical fiction steeped in meticulously-researched factual detail.
A fine novel
Kyiv starts with the invasion of Russia by Nazi Germany in June 1941. The infamous Operation Barbarossa, in breach of the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact of 1939, saw over three million Wehrmacht soldiers and Einsatztruppen invade the Soviet Union in an attempt to wage a Blitzkrieg similar to the one Hitler had already largely won on the Western Front by that time. Within a mere six weeks, Nazi troops had surrounded Kyiv and were shelling the city day and night in actions eerily similar to the ones we are currently witnessing by proxy via our TV screens.
The novel focuses on a large cast of characters, headed by the British secret agent Tam Moncrieff and his love interest Isobel (Bella) Menzies, a double agent who had previously defected to Moscow but is now, seemingly, working for the British Secret Service again. In a fast-moving plot that sees Bella transport secret weapons in aid of the Soviets to Kyiv with the help of the resistance fighter and secret agent Ilya Glivenko, and that also features the regular – and sinister – appearances of MI6 agents Kim Philby and Guy Burgess of later ‘Cambridge Spy Circle’ notoriety, the action alternates between Kyiv (the last bastion protecting the oil fields of the Caucasus from the approaching Nazi forces), and London and rural Hampshire (where Moncrieff is trying to piece together clues about Bella’s disappearance and Philby’s mysterious involvement and potential treason).
The novel’s thirty chapters are structured around historical dates, starting with the beginning of Operation Barbarossa on 22 June 1941, moving through the attack of Kyiv and the first few weeks of Nazi terror in the city, ending on 3 November 1941, and with an ‘Afterwards’ section dated 18 August 1943. Hurley meticulously aligns his chapters with real historical events: Chapter 13 for instance, focusing on Thursday, 18 September 1941, depicts the aerial bombardment of Kyiv by the Luftwaffe on the final day before the Wehrmacht marches into the defeated city, while Chapter 15 (24 September) describes the first explosion of a booby-trapped building along Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s main boulevard.
It took me until about half-way through the novel, and the information that one of the key characters in the novel, the Ukrainian journalist Larissa Krulak, is Jewish, that the significance of the dates suddenly dawned on me – and, indeed, the narrative then hurtled unstoppably towards 29 and 30 September 1941, and to the massacre at Babi Yar that saw the murder of over 33,000 Ukrainian Jews in a ravine just outside of Kyiv in one of the largest single massacres of WWII.
Literary depictions of mass murder and genocide are always laced with risk, with a multitude of ethical considerations to take into account: preserving the memory and dignity of the victims often clashes with attempts to lure in readers, to provide descriptions that are attention-grabbing and graphic. Babi Yar, has been the subject of a variety of literary texts, from D.M. Thomas’ White Hotel(1981) to Jonathan Littell’s controversial Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) of 2006. Both authors depict the killings at Babi Yar in all of their horror, with visceral detail that makes for more than uncomfortable reading. Hurley, by contrast, tackles the events of those infamous days in Kyiv with historical rigour and greater sensitivity, eschewing gory details to focus on the victims as they are being rounded up and, eventually, for an aerial view of the ravine during the mass killings. This ploy, the physical distancing of the main characters – and through them ourselves as the readers – in a small plane circling over Babi Yar, ensures an account that is both historically accurate and emotive, that evokes the chaos and horror of the scenes from a distance yet does not pry into the victims’ last seconds or stoop to depictions of blood and gore. I had been worrying about what I would find in those descriptions of Babi Yar that, in the hands of a lesser writer, could have been problematic, but Hurley handles these scenes masterfully. It is, in particular, these measured depictions of one of the WWII’s most horrific events that for me elevate Kyiv over Hurley’s earlier war novels.
This is not the place for plot spoilers or summaries of further events in the novel. Suffice it to say that there is no happy ending in Hurley’s novel. The shadow of Babi Yar hovers over the remainder of the narrative, and as I was finishing the novel, news from the ongoing war in Ukraine reminded me once again that the fiction I had just been reading was not only steeped in historical fact but that it was, in fact, currently being played out again in real life. On 3 March, the memorial site at Babyn Yar was damaged in Russian missile attacks; news about massacres committed by retreating Russian soldiers in Bucha showed bodies lying in the street, civilians shot at close range, women being subjected to mass rape. Kyiv ends on the recapture of the city by Soviet troops on 6 November 1943: the ‘handful of veterans’ who enter the city first ‘stared at the grey ruins that lined the city’s biggest boulevard. They remembered shops here, hotels, theatres, trams, people, the beating heart of an enormous city’ (2021, p. 397). At the time of writing this blog, in late April 2022, Kyiv has, as yet, been relatively unscathed by the war. But as I closed the book I feared that history, indeed, was about to repeat itself and that Kyiv, once again, would soon lie in ruin.
For another perspective on recent events in Ukraine take a look at our recent blog by Vladislav Areshka.
Dr Christine Berberich is a Reader in English Literature at the University of Portsmouth, specialising in Holocaust Literature, fictions of Englishness and national identity, and Brexit Literature. She is the author of The Image of the English Gentleman in Twentieth-Century Literature (Ashgate 2007) and the editor of The Bloomsbury Introduction to Popular Fiction (Bloomsbury, 2014), Trauma & Memory: The Holocaust in Contemporary Culture (Routledge, 2021), and Brexit and the Migrant Voice: EU Citizens in post-Brexit Literature and Culture (Routledge, forthcoming), as well as numerous journal articles on a range of topics.