Book Review By: Matthew Krajniak with Consequence Forum
The Man Who Would Not Bow
By: Askold Melnyczuk
Published Oct. 19, 2021
Within the first few pages of Askold Melnyczuk’s fifth book-length work of fiction, The Man Who Would Not Bow, you understand you’re in for some sophisticated narrative. What you learn as you continue through these eight stories, however, is that this sophistication isn’t achieved through ostentatious or experimental language and craft—the stories are firmly in the Realist tradition—but rather from how intelligently Melnyczuk handles the narrative material. For example, in all the stories there are references to historical people and events, but instead of using these references to aggrandize the stories, he quietly interweaves them with the fictive elements, imbuing each story with a sense of the concrete, the lived. Likewise, he takes bold leaps between time periods, themes, and points of view, and while this might call for a more nuanced understanding of narrative, it also deftly reinforces the confusing and often contradictory experiences the characters have. To be sure, this collection places demands on the reader, but for those willing to entertain those demands, The Man Who Would Not Bow is an engaging collection dealing with—among many other themes—the consequences of war.
To be clear, this is not a war book—few combatants march through these pages and the stories primarily concern themselves with everyday people struggling to make sense of their worlds. War, however, is ubiquitous here; in every paragraph and between every letter you’ll find it. And it is through Melnyczuk’s apt handling of this involute subject that an engaged and willing reader gets the chance to understand better how varied and powerful its consequences can be. One instance of how powerful they are is the story “Walk With Us.” In this piece, the reader follows a mother over the course of several days as she struggles with the existential and moral questions related to her daughter’s criminal actions while a soldier—the daughter tortured and killed prisoners (Melnyczuk is referencing Abu Ghraib here). The mother begins with a thought to herself in the second person: “You put yourself in a position – you make yourself available – and you really are no longer responsible for your actions, you’ve given yourself over to a force greater than you, and it’s not God, and it’s not good” (51). At the outset of the story then, she’s already expressing helplessness, her hopelessness. She continues throughout the rest of the narrative trying to suss out exactly who or what might be blamed for her daughter’s behavior. She examines herself, the role of biology suggested by her daughter’s mental health condition (“selective mutism”), and finally the government: “They plant their ideas in people. Good people, rich soil. Then they water them with words. Big words, luscious words: God, service, country, patriot, hero. Empty words; cheap talk” (66). By the end, the mother’s emotional and mental exhaustion is visceral, and though she believes her daughter is not beyond hope, this optimism is yet another example of how forceful war’s consequences are, of how loved ones are yanked up and down with shock and fear and love.
Indeed, the reader can feel the ever-growing crags of the mother’s heartbreak, anger, and confusion, but it’s through Melnyczuk’s use of point of view that the true impact of these consequences are made real. The story is told in a close first person, almost as if the mother is sitting on the couch with her daughter, chatting with her, but the effect is that the reader feels like the mother is confiding in them, and thus they are encouraged to put themselves in the mother’s place, to consider how they would react if they were in a similar situation. Would they be able to forgive outright a relative who’d committed a war crime? What about a deed during combat that was morally reprehensible? Where is the line? Is there a line?
And, certainly, the answers to these questions are dependent on any number of variables, but through Melnyczuk’s skilled hand, a reader can come to see that there are any number of insidious ways a person’s answers could negatively affect their loved one. Would it even be possible not to treat them differently? What small but harmful ways would that bewilderment or disgust or confusion manifest itself? Would those antagonistic feelings ever dissipate? In a sense, Melnyczuk is reminding us that casualties don’t only have to be corporeal. There’s more to being a human then the flesh (a question he digs into explicitly in the short short “Embodiment.”)
Likewise, the characters and situations he creates remind us that the negative effects of war don’t have to be limited to immediate family members but are potent enough to exist in time and cross generations. In the collection’s eponymous story, the reader meets a young man named Mykola, a passionate revolutionary who is tasked with transporting the recently dethroned Tsar Nicholas II. However, because of the savageness with which his fellow revolutionaries murder Nicolas and his family (along with other selfish, unprincipled incidents), Mykola becomes fanatical about living a life according to his ideas of justice and drags his family around the globe in search of it. This constant moving affects how his son, Serge, engages with the world, and ultimately why Serge becomes a dysfunctional person once he settles down and is no longer distracted by the novelty of a new town or new people.
Through this story, the idea that war is powerful enough to negatively affect the sons and daughters of its combatants (whether state-sanctioned ones or not) is made concrete. Melnyczuk, though, further drives home how varied and long-lasting these effects can be by the overall structure of the collection, which is exemplified by him connecting “The Man Who Would Not Bow” to the collection’s first story, “Termites.” In “Termites,” we encounter Serge’s son, Oliver (though, if reading the collection in order, we won’t know he’s his son at the time), who, spiritually adrift after a divorce, has like his forebears taken up an idealist’s cause and agreed to take a job reporting on the plight of refugees in the Middle East. What makes Oliver’s narrative so powerful as it relates to these cross-generational effects is not necessarily the continued belief in the rights of the oppressed, but rather how Melnyczuk links one story to the next. Through this linking, he gains the power of refrain, of echo, and in fact does so again and again: the interlinking narratives of Oliver, Serge, and Mykola are but one example of the collection’s stories sharing characters, and relatives of characters, who are affected by war. Oliver’s mother, Yulia, appears in both stories as does a man her grandmother knew, the famous Russian author Nikolai Gogol, while Russ from “‘Little Fascist Panties’” is related to the mother from “Walk With Us,” and so on. The book is really more of a story cycle than a traditional collection of shorts, but the holistic effect is that the consequences of war are sprawling and as nuanced as an ecosystem. This singular approach also strikes a balance, prompting you to think about how expansive the consequences really are without overwhelming you and short-circuiting the inquiry.
There is no shortage of books that are filled with bombast, hoping to dazzle with how far they can bend language and narrative. And at first blush, The Man Who Would Not Bow might be perceived as such a book, as Melnyczuk clearly has little interest in traditional notions of plot or other time-worn storytelling devices, but the challenges of this text aren’t self-indulgent or done wantonly. Instead, they are very much in service to the complicated experiences these characters struggle with and the contradictory world in which they—and we—live.
Author of The Man Who Would Not Bow Website: Askold Melnyczuk