7 July 2020
by Sarah Hurst
Sarah Hurst reviews Life Went On Anyway, by Oleg Sentsov, translated by Uilleam Blacker, Deep Vellum, 2019. ISBN 9781941920879
This slim collection of autobiographical stories from Oleg Sentsov’s childhood and youth goes some way towards explaining how the Crimean film director was able to stand by his principles and resist the torments inflicted on him during his five years in the Russian prison system. They are written in a straightforward, wry style and elegantly translated with an introduction by Uilleam Blacker that describes the background to Sentsov’s arrest in 2014.
Sentsov comes from a fairly poor, hardscrabble background that was typical of provincial life in the late Soviet era. When he was nine or ten his beloved black mongrel Tuzik was shot – assumed to be a stray. “My mum suggested I should cry a bit, it would make me feel better, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t believe it. No, I knew that he’d been shot, but I neither believed nor understood it,” he writes in “Dog”.
In “Childhood” Sentsov describes playing “chizh”, a game of knocking over cans with sticks, and football on the streets with a gang of friends. Their relatively carefree years were followed by misery in adulthood: Makar became a semi-homeless village alcoholic, Taksik joined a religious sect after his brother was shot and his father hanged himself, and another Oleg “hit the bottle hard,” Sentsov writes. “The bottle doesn’t care if you’re smart or stupid, it drowns everyone.”
Sentsov was also bullied relentlessly at school. “It wasn’t like everybody took turns beating me, but so many of them wanted to humiliate me, and no matter whom I fought, even if I won, which, with my frail build, was very rare, the whole class was always on the side of my opponent, and things just kept getting worse,” he writes in “School”. He was the best student but would get thrown out of class for arguing with the teachers and couldn’t get accepted by the other children for several years.
You can always rely on Sentsov to tell you exactly what he thinks. “Makar’s elder brother, Valerka, also wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box – uneducated, untalented, but at the same time unambitious,” he writes in “The Makars”. Makar’s older sister Svetka was “pretty stupid and not too pretty. Her most distinctive physical feature were her blackheads, which she was always squeezing, and which she could never get rid of.” Sentsov’s grandma who lived with him “wasn’t very smart, a bit unpleasant, quite fat and old, and I didn’t love her,” he tells us in “Grandma”.
The defining moment for Sentsov’s character came when he was in hospital for a tonsillectomy at 13, which followed an earlier hospitalisation with temporary paralysis. A boy on the ward was mocking another boy with Down’s Syndrome by pretending to throw his sock out of the window while actually hiding it inside his closed fist, then revealing the sock again. The boy with Down’s thought the window was magical and kept throwing his own clothes out of it, wondering why they didn’t come back, while the other boy laughed at him. Sentsov watched in silence. After that something “clicked inside,” Sentsov writes in “Hospital.” “What exactly clicked? That doesn’t matter. What matters is that since then I’ve never kept quiet when I saw somebody trying to humiliate someone else, and I know that I never will.”
The first brief story in the book is called “Autobiography (in Literary Form)” and is actually part of Sentsov’s application for a directing course. Sentsov writes that he didn’t want a nine-to-five job because he would have murdered all his co-workers by the end of the day. His father died when he was 20 and he first earned a living ripping people off by selling them Herbalife products. He started a business with a friend, they got into debt and the friend disappeared in 1996. Sentsov became the gaming champion of Ukraine and set up the biggest internet centre in Simferopol. His next ambition was to make films.
The book starts with its ending, and we do not learn about how he made his feature film “Gamer” or got involved in the Maidan protests in 2013. The Kremlin singled him out as someone who was capable of leading and inspiring others to oppose Russian rule on the annexed peninsula and put him on trial. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and sent back to Ukraine as part of a prisoner exchange in September 2019. Thousands of people around the world had joined the campaign to free Sentsov. He has many fans, and hopefully we will hear much more from him.