On the 27th of November, the University of York’s Student PEN Centre hosted the launch of Mikail Eldin’s novel The Sky Wept Fire, the publication of which is due to chance and captivation. It was thanks to its strong reader-report by Anna Gunin, who was to become its translator, that the manuscript was picked up by Portobello Books and received an English PEN Writers in Translation Award.
The memoir spans the period from the start of the first Chechen war in 1994 until the present. Eldin fills the pages with the journey that transformed him from a young arts journalist into a battle-hardened war reporter. His narrative tells of his endurances; from losing loved ones to holding onto his own life and sanity. The memoir gives a unique glimpse into lives of the Chechen resistance, with an earnest, raw and compelling narrative.
‘This flawed story is not about heroic war, or high-flown war, but real war. War seen through the eyes of an ordinary civilian. It is a fragment from my never-ending conversations with the ghosts of my memories.’
These ghosts fill the memoir’s pages, as Eldin portrays the struggles of the war which coincide with his personal battles with fear, loss and sometimes his tentative grip on sanity. His narrative has the observation of a journalist, beauty of a poet, and the passion, rage and pain of a Chechen freedom fighter.
The launch was held in the university’s newly built Humanities Research Centre. It was followed by a drinks reception, giving audience a chance to speak with both author and translator. During the evening, Eldin and Gunin both read excerpts from the novel in Chechen and English respectively. It was a true privilege to be able to listen to the memoir’s words from Eldin, as well as to the beauty of Gunin’s translation.
After the readings a panel was chaired by Vaughan Smith. Smith is an independent video journalist, and has covered conflicts in countries such as Chechnya, Iraq and Bosnia. He also founded the Frontline Club in 2003 in honour of his friends and colleagues who lost their lives working as journalists for Frontline TV.
When the nature of war in the 21st century was discussed, Smith mentioned how he considers the horrors of war to be vastly neglected by the news in the UK, the media predominantly providing glorification. This emphasised the importance of Eldin’s memoir, as a text that shows the unseen inside of a horrific conflict, and that is not afraid to bear all to its readers –no matter how brutal or horrifying.
Throughout the panel Eldin was a calm presence, being informative and friendly with many warming smiles. After reading his memoir I thought that he might have been more hardened by the conflict. But, as I am sure he would say, the war did not defeat him, for he still has and will continue to hold on to his heart and humanity. Mikail lives in Norway in political asylum since 8 years.
Georgia Woodroffe is an undergraduate student. She avidly contributes to student media and holds editorial and journalistic positions on a number of publications