Image of children sitting on the floor in a classroom, raising their arms.

Review: Vovchyk who Rode a Bomb

Hanna Klymenko-Syniook, Ukraine

Cover of Vovchyk Who Rode a Bomb

Review of Вовчик, який осідлав бомбу [Vovchyk who Rode a Bomb] by Юрій Нікітінський [Yuri Nikitinsky], translated to Ukrainian from Russian by Іван Андрусяк [Ivan Andrusiak]. Kyiv, Ukraine: Chas Maistriv, 2019, 138 pp.

Yuri Nikitinsky’s book Vovchyk who Rode a Bomb contains two stories that now for most children in Ukraine, including my own, will appear to be predictions of their contemporary reality. Many lived through something similar eight years ago, when their towns or villages and homes first experienced war. Of course, the book is about them. But did the author know that in time his text would have a new lease on life, would be in even greater demand because the war would burst into the whole territory of Ukraine? Today some people have been denied the feeling of safety; others have lost their families, homes, and even the towns, and villages of their local homeland. Many now find themselves in occupied towns, and many more have been forced to move into the unknown, in search of the refuge provided by relatively safe regions, or abroad. And how many have been compelled to escape a second time to save their children?

“Now I’m a child of war.” These words of my daughter pierced my ears and consciousness, and still resonate with a terrible truth. I will probably remember them forever, like a heavy stone with sharp edges that cuts the skin, leaving bloody wounds—stone from which one can’t free oneself because it is part of one’s life. War brings so many horrors, traumas, and losses, but the most terrible thing is when it robs children of their childhood and throws them into adulthood–an abrupt, bitter, and dramatic one.

In the story “Vovchyk who Rode a Bomb” Nikitinsky defends the right of every child to a peaceful childhood, to at least have a life. A child’s psychology reacts to every event a hundred times more sharply and painfully, but still preserves a defense mechanism: even in wartime, under threat of death, children still want adventures and entertainment. A reader of the story thinks immediately about how many Vovchyks and Vladyks are over there–in Mariupol, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Mykolaiv, Kherson, or other places where active military action is taking place, or which have been occupied.

Nikitinsky succeeds in combining war’s horrors with childhood pranks and spontaneity, causing the reader to involuntarily smile through tears, even to laugh heartily. After all, the two children behave like boys should. Although quite different in temperament, external appearance, and education, Vadym and Vovchyk not only grow close in a strange way but become friends, even comrades. Obviously, they complement one another. The fact that they live close to one another plays a role in this. The first, who is the narrator, is somewhat melancholic, while the second is quick to act. Vovchyk is a typical ruffian, a rogue who creates trouble for his parents, and causes his mother grief by his antics, but surprisingly doesn’t stir antipathy. On the contrary, with every new page, the reader sympathizes more with the blue-eyed restless Vovchyk and warms to his red hair and freckled face. Vadym, on the other hand, is the well-behaved, respected boy, who under the influence of his activist friend also frequently gets into trouble. As a result, they both get punished, or, more accurately, used to get punished, because as the story’s title suggests, the ending will be tragic.

After being resettled, the narrator and protagonist Vadym sits every evening by the window of his building in Western Ukraine and observes the mountains, behind which the sun disappears. He also writes letters to his father, who is a soldier. And he also mentions Vovchyk, who pokes his finger into the nose of a monument, rummages in a rubbish dump and finds various objects, such as a barrel used for paint, which he suddenly decides to set alight. As a result of this prank both boys return home “without eyelashes or eyebrows and with singed hair.” Many such scenes are recalled by Vadym. Perhaps the strongest impression is created by the fact that these children of war play at war. More correctly they play, because after a short time their games become reality. In one episode, when the first bombs hit the zoo store, the compassion of Vovchyk is exposed. A little later, he demonstrates his housekeeping abilities and begins to cook. But we don’t learn about Vovchyk’s many other talents because he rides a bomb and now smiles from heaven. At least that is what Vadym says. And is it possible not to trust the children of war?

The second story, “If Bodya were here”, lacks tragic pathos, but it’s also devoted to two resettled children: Sanya and Bodya. More accurately, it is about the first of these boys, who is also the narrator. Like Vadym and Vovchyk, Sanya and Bodya are friends, neighbors and classmates. Ordinarily inseparable, they are separated by the war and have to travel to different corners of Ukraine because life is the most important essence, the greatest value, especially when it’s about children. Sanya leaves with his family for the capital, while Bodya travels west. However, before parting they agree to return home after the war and to continue being faithful comrades. Will they succeed in meeting up again and will they see their homes? War doesn’t ask children about their dreams and plans, shows no interest in their emotional states and feelings. On the contrary, it ruthlessly destroys these feelings.

A new, peaceful reality, a new home, new circumstances–Sanya can survive them all, can accept them, get used to them, if only his friend was nearby. “If Bodya were here” is continually repeated by the protagonist. He often hears the voice of his friend, who gives him suggestions and advice. Their spiritual closeness and mutual understanding allow them to hear one another’s voices in the most difficult moments. They help and protect one another even at a distance.

Sanya didn’t expect to become friends with the girl Nastya. Their conversations—in particular about the sun, but also an episode with chalk drawings on the asphalt—are reminiscent of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. They reveal the spirits of the young people, their loneliness, sadness, and openness—perhaps also a wisdom created by early maturation.

Nikitinsky depicts war as it is seen by children, and he presents it in the language of children. I admit that I read the book aloud to my daughter, and I advise parents and children to read this book together—not because it is frightening and painful, but because the joint experience is valuable in a time of insecurity in a fragile world. The humorous and dramatic (even tragic) story “Vovchyk who rode a bomb” (which gives the book its title) and the philosophical adventure story “If Bodya were here” can greatly enhance the important feeling of being close, nearby, and, above all, can stimulate the need to paint the sun and to share it with others. I hope that Nikitinsky’s book Vovchyk who Rode a Bomb will be translated into English because it’s a good candidate to discuss philosophical and psychological problems related to a child’s existence.