Sniper: A Novel

  • Nicolai Lilin, translated by Jamie Richards
  • W.W. Norton and Company
  • 416 pp.

A literary chronicle of a small corner of post-Cold War history, this new novel recounts one soldier’s experiences during the Second Chechen War.

Reviewed by Tom Young

Nicolai Lilin’s novel, Sniper, arrives in American bookstores after stirring controversy in Europe. First published in Lilin’s adopted home country of Italy, the book was printed in Great Britain under the title Free Fall: A Sniper’s Story from Chechnya. The publisher billed it as a memoir of a soldier’s experiences in the Russian army during the Second Chechen War.

However, Lilin has said the first-person story encompasses not just his own experiences, but also those of his friends and comrades in arms. For example, the book’s opening scenes depict the bewilderment of a young conscript forced into service. But Lilin told Britain’s The Independent newspaper that he joined the army voluntarily.

American publisher W.W. Norton has played it safe by re-titling the book and very clearly marketing it as fiction. Given the scandals in recent years over embellished memoirs, most notably with James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, Norton’s choice seems wise. In publishing, it’s a cardinal sin to knowingly falsify even the slightest detail in a work of nonfiction. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to fictionalize one’s own real experiences. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried comes immediately to mind. His Vietnam War stories were inspired by, but not limited to, his own memories. The Things They Carried has taken its place as the most important work of literature to come out of the Vietnam War.

Fiction, while free from the limitations of literal truth, must still remain true to life. And some of the passages in Sniper will raise questions for anyone who knows the subject matter. For example, in one scene Lilin describes treating a friend whose wound is oozing “the good kind of blood, the kind that’s not too thick.” I don’t recall that distinction in any first-aid training the military ever gave me, but I’m willing to chalk it up to something lost in translation.

The author himself blames a translation error for another glitch: a reference to a Chechen fighter found with some kind of super ammunition filled with liquid mercury. I’ve never heard of such ammunition, and Lilin told a newspaper that the rounds actually contained depleted uranium — which makes a lot more sense.

Other things ring true. For example, most of Lilin’s fellow warriors seem to have nicknames: Moscow, Shoe, Zenith. I don’t know why, but troops all over the world do that, Americans included. Everybody gets a nickname whether they want it or not. (I once knew a navigator who made an error during an ocean crossing and thereafter had to live with the handle of “Magellan.”)

Lilin’s difficulties transitioning back to normal civilian life will sound familiar to anyone who’s gone through that process. He writes: “I needed to hold a weapon in my hands — I felt a physical lack, as though I couldn’t breathe properly.” The author goes on to describe how he met that need by aiming an unloaded rifle at his neighbors, even pulling the trigger. That’s not just a come-down from combat high; that’s severe, untreated post-traumatic stress disorder. Maybe it’s another fictionalized detail, but you’d almost have to suffer from PTSD even to think of doing something like that.

Fortunately for Lilin — and everyone around him — he managed to channel his anguish into writing, and created a snapshot of a nasty little war not closely followed by most Americans. He has produced a literary chronicle of a small corner of post-Cold War history, and it is a dark place to look into. Lilin describes a conflict so brutal that what can only be described as war crimes come as part of the routine. If his depiction is accurate, some of his comrades had a tendency to torture and kill prisoners, and they expected no better if they themselves were captured.

Sniper does not follow the typical narrative arc of a military thriller; it’s more a series of related vignettes. Lilin’s scenes read much like those of his literary ancestor Isaac Babel, especially Babel’s Red Cavalry stories. The collage-like nature of the book also reminded me of Michael Herr’s Vietnam memoir Dispatches. Perhaps so much war literature takes this form because the chaos of war does not usually follow a storyline’s pattern of beginning, middle and end. You experience it as a fire-hose blast of intense moments, some horrific, and processing it might take the rest of your life.

War is an unnatural act. Except for psychopaths, we all have a natural aversion to killing other human beings. When we do so, even when sanctioned by law and society, we pay a psychic price. In one particularly eloquent passage, Lilin tells of his own mental scars: “Where a normal person sees a landscape and contemplates the beauty of nature, I realize that, against my will, I am figuring out where the machine gun should go.”

Tom Young is the author of the novels Silent Enemy and The Mullah’s Storm, both set in the Afghanistan war. His new novel, The Renegades, will be released July 19. Young is an Air National Guard veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and a former writer and editor for the broadcast division of the Associated Press. Visit his website at

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