December 1, 2023

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At the threshold of unimaginable horror

At the threshold of unimaginable horror

“A Difficult Place”, Jonathan Littell and Antoine d’Agata, Callimart, 350 p., €21, digital €15.

Quiet street, facades “Coquettes”Shops, then, “suddenly”, a rotten house. Also, uprooted trees, car wrecks, and pieces of metal screeching in the wind. Or this cellar with signs of Russian soldiers raping multiple women and murdering one of them, discovered after they left. “Head exploded, legs and stomach slashed”.

In May 2022, writer Jonathan Littell and photographer Antoine d’Agata are in Bautza, a suburb of Kew, for “M le magazine du monde”. They have it in hand Project published by The New York TimesThe killings were carried out by Russian forces when they occupied the city from February 27 to March 31. According to Ukraine’s attorney general, the bodies of 637 civilians were exhumed, or 12% of the population that remained there since the Russian occupation began on February 24. Life resumes with a strange gentleness, but as the two men make their way through the streets, the explosion of crime resurfaces everywhere. Mixed texts and images, Inconvenient placeThe book, which they drew from this report and others, contains a chilling landscape survey.

Jonathan Littell observes and listens, gathers evidence, cross-examines it, interprets it, and places it in the places he investigates. Antoine d’Agata, on his side, captures a face, a female narrating gesture, an open grave, a torture chamber, bodies thrown to the floor. Through the art of the raw look – tight, dense scenes, low light, as if entangled with bodies and objects – the photographer found a visual language as adept at bringing to light the stark reality of war as Littell’s precise, hammering, frantic language. .

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But he also shares with him the impotence of the late witness. A sense of insurmountable distance, an acceptance of being on the threshold of unimaginable horror, is a method of inquiry through this intense and wary book. It was already at the heart of the project that had taken them to Ukraine in the first place. That’s early 2021. At the suggestion of a friend, Jonathan Littell decided to write a book about Babi Yar, north of Kiev, where between September 29, 1941 and the end of the Nazi occupation of the city in November 1943, 100,000 people, two-thirds of them Jews, were killed by the Germans with the help of Ukrainian auxiliaries.

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