Serhij Zhadan

Mesopotamia - Stories

Original Ukrainian title: Месопотамія, published in 2014 by Klub simejnogo dozvillja, Kharkiv
(German title: Mesopotamien)
ca. 368 pages
Serhij Zhadan
Foto: Serhij Zhadan
© Isolde Ohlbaum

Serhij Zhadan was born in 1974 in Starobilsk, near Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, and studied German at Kharkiv University. Since 1991, he has been one of the leading figures on the Kharkiv scene.

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English world rights (Yale UP), France (Noir sur Blanc), Italy (Voland), Denmark (Jensen & Dalgaard), Norway (Pax), Poland (Czarne), Georgia (Intelekti)

Angelus Award 2015


The setting of Serhiy Zhadan’s latest book is the Eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, here and now, a modern Babylon: a city in Mesopotamia, set at the riverbank of diverse languages and cultures. In the West, there is the river Dnepr, in the East the Donez, a sidearm of the river Don – all of the rivers that could represent the Ukraine and Russia. Zhadan’s Kharkiv is a place that changes its shape in each of the short stories: a Russian, a Ukrainian, and a Tartarian version of this multilingual and multicultural city exist.

In the prologue the author cites from a folktale of the ancient Sumerians, who settled at two rivers, and spoke one language that lent itself to singing as well as to cursing; the women gave birth to brave children and thus to serious problems. Zhadan’s Kharkiv is a place that changes its shape in each of the short stories: a Russian, a Ukrainian, and a Tartarian version of this multilingual and multicultural city exist.

The book consists of two parts, the first of which comprises nine »Stories and Biographies«, all telling the story of a person’s search for the meaning of their life, all carrying that person’s name as their title. The first part is followed by »Explanations and Generalisations«, consisting of thirty long poems, a lyrical-musical postlude in which the themes of the stories about Matthew and Luke, Bob and Marat, Mario and Romeo, Jurik and Foma and the others re-emerge. The protagonists of these stories seem to communicate across the borders of the individual stories that take the reader from the Ukraine to the USA. Somehow they all know each other, met in passing before, share dreams and fantasies.

In recent months, since the revolution in the Ukraine and the disintegration, of eastern Ukraine, Serhiy Zhadan – himself an activist of the Euromaidan in Kharkiv - has described the dramatic changes in the Donbass, his native region. That’s why his attempt at continuing the geo- and mythopoetic survey of the Ukrainian East after Voroshilovgrad (Die Erfindung des Jazz im Donbass), now in the futuristic metropolis of Kharkiv, is all the more impressive. Serhiy Zhadan, currently the most famous Ukrainian author, belongs in the first league of European literature.


»Serhij Zhadan is the most daring Ukrainian writer at the moment. [Mesopotamia] is a knockout. […] This author’s and narrator’s voice is so powerful, full of rhythm, concentrated energy and straightforward descriptions and still of profoundly delicate poetry.« Süddeutsche Zeitung

»[Zhadan] writes in a poetic language full of power and sound that profits from the fact that he isn’t just a narrator and poet, but also a musician. He places his words – tender, painfully sweet, brash – with a delicate sense for melody and association.« Die ZEIT

»[Zhadan] has realised [a] hybrid genre. However, there definitely are connections between the stories filled with details and action and the atmospherically charged, pondering poems: In both instances, poetry dominates causality, the secret dominates logic and the metaphors create a timeless magic, the same that is befitting of fairytales and epics. […] And then there’s the language that uses all available nuances between the ordinary and the sublime, the casual and the emphatic and only refuses to do one thing: to judge timidly, let alone denounce something entirely.« NZZ

»Serhiy Zhadan’s Mesopotamia is a novel in the spirit of music: rhythmical, pulsating and powerful. It tells of the turmoil of life in an endangered country. […] [it’s] to be read like nine rock ballads plus the inevitable encore. And it’s what Zhadan does simply ravishingly.« Stuttgarter Zeitung

»It’s especially the lyrical language that thrills and moves you, the rough elegance of descriptions and it’s this grotesque humour that makes every single one of the nine stories a pleasure to read. […] Zhadan couldn’t have raised a more passionate memorial to honour his city!« Geistesblüten

»Zhadan’s mad stories [are] a touching experience and Mesopotamia [is] an urban text with the quality of world literature: erratic, but never disjointed, nervous, both angry and tender, confusing, harsh, rather loud at times and stunningly quiet at others. Aki Kaurismäki would be well advised in securing the film rights to this.« Tiroler Zeitung

»Mesopotamia contains most of the ingredients that make Zhadan’s prose so incomparable: intensely rhythmic language, characters striving for freedom, unconventional scenes, mad twists.« Kulturaustausch

»With great emotional force […], Mesopotamia is a poetic-sentimental and simultaneously entertaining novel. It couldn’t get any better.« SWR2

»[Zhadan] is an awfully talented writer who knows how to trace the emotional state of his fellow Ukrainians and to express them in gripping, eloquent images like no other. Images that attach themselves to your soul and that you won’t easily forget. […] Mesopotamia is, without a doubt, Zhadan’s most mature, most profound and most poetic book yet.« fluter.de

»Mesopotamia […] is an affectionate portrait of Kharkiv and its inhabitants and highly political at the same time. […] Serhiy Zhadan has written a very poetical book. And with its utopia of a peaceful coexistence a very political one.« Fixpoetry

»Incredible optimism radiates from Zhadan’s texts […] and does so in an intoxicatingly elegant […] language that unites genuine everyday slang, precise reflections and colouful cascades of words and refrains from any sentimentality.« Publik Forum


Book presentation of Mesopotamia:

Other publications

Internat/The Orphanage (2018)

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English world rights (Yale UP), France (Noir sur Blanc), Italy (Voland), Denmark (Jensen & Dalgaard) Poland (Czarne), Belorussia (Januškevič), Republic of Moldova / Romanian rights (Cartier), Georgia (Intelekti)

Die Erfindung des Jazz im Donbass/Voroshilovgrad (2012)

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English world rights (Deep Vellum), Russia (Astrel), Arabic world rights (Here&There), France (Noir sur Blanc), Italy (Voland), Netherlands (De Geus) Poland (Czarne), Hungary (Europa), Bulgaria (Paradox), Republic of Moldova / Romanian rights (Cartier), Latvia (Janis Roze), Slovenia (Beletrina), Belarus (Logvinau), Georgia (Intelekti)

Hymne der demokratischen Jugend/Democratic Youth Anthem (2009)

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Russia (Amphora), Poland (Czarne), Slovakia (Brak), Bulgaria (Paradox)

Anarchy in the UKR/Anarchy in the UKR (2007)

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Russia (Amphora), France (Noir sur Blanc), Sweden (2244/Bonniers), Norway (Pax), Lithuania (Kitos Knygos), Poland (Czarne), Republic of Moldova / Romanian rights (Cartier)

Depeche Mode/Depeche Mode (2007)

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English world rights (Glagoslav), Russia (Amphora), Italy (Castelvecchi), Sweden (2244/Bonniers), Poland (Czarne), Hungary (Europa), Bulgaria (Paradox), Republic of Moldova / Romanian rights (Cartier), Estonia (Loomingu Raamatukogu), Lithuania (Kitos Knygos)