For most people the name Mikhail Bulgakov is linked with the Master and Margarita, a book that is very different in style from The White Guard (I will post a review of the Master… later) so it is good to come to this with an open mind.
This book is on a par with other war time novels including All Quiet on the Western Front in describing what people feel under fire. The difference is that the setting is not trenches or woodland but on the streets of Kiev.
But not only is it a book about war but is also about revolution and impact of fluid and brutal politics on normal people trying to work out where their loyalties should lie.
The central focus of the story is the Turbin family – Alexei, Elena and Nikolka – and the City of Kiev. The year is 1918 and the Tsar’s regime has collapsed and the Germans are still in the Ukraine and those who fought for Russia or were cadets on their way to becoming officers sit and ponder what happens next. Events start to develop with the Germans, now a defeated nation , pulling out from the City and as the Cossack army advances each individual has to decide whether to fight or to melt into the background. Alexei is wounded and almost dies, Nikolka fights then runs but in so doing become a man and Elena loses a husband into exile but sees her brothers safe.
Is it well written?
It captures the fear and the inner turmoil of people facing the decision to fight or run and also the tension in the city. You want the main characters to survive and come out intact and Bulgakov makes sure that you are left worrying about them until the end and even then with the hint of more trouble to come you are left wondering just what becomes of them. This story is timeless because it is fundamentally about human nature and in terms of showing a host of emotions ranging from cowardice to bravery and grief and joy then the White Guard has real depth.
Should it be read?
What might prevent more people from reading this is not interest but availability and the problem with being able to see beyond the Master and Margarita. This is an engaging read that drags you in and despite its difficult subject is absorbing page turner that really gets you to care for the people inside number 13 St Andrew’s Hill and for the City itself as the guns are aimed at its heart from the armoured train waiting to crawl into Kiev and start the killing all over again.
In a way although it might lead to more Bulgakov the sort of books that are in a similar vein are All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane.
Version read – Fontana modern classics paperback