This book by Vasiliy Grossman was in terms of pages one of the longest that I have chosen to read so far this year and that has an impact on the way you approach it with the expectation that it is going to be an epic. The fact it is an epic that encompasses the most vital stuff of life but not quite in the way you might have expected.
You come to this book with an idea, based on the dust jacket imagery and words, that this is going to be a hard-hitting book based on people in and around the battleground that became the bloody fight for control of Stalingrad during the Second World War. The battle is a backdrop but the real fight here is not for control of buildings and a city but of your own mind and the position to be able to speak your mind without fear of attack.
The tentacles stretch out from nuclear physicists Viktor and his wife with their various family members and their loves being used as a way of illustrating what was happening at different levels of the social spectrum as well as various locations during the fight for the survival of the motherland. Grossman is able to also jump into the heads of the German’s that have a similar battle with wrestling with the party and their own ability to speak the truth.
The main plot ends up focusing on Viktor who ends up almost losing everything after making a breakthrough in his field of science but is saved by a telephone call from Stalin. Meanwhile others are either busy being denounced or facing the consequences of speaking out. There are also others quite happy to avoid that sort of conflict and step aside and duck out and compromise themselves.
Along with Viktor the old communist Krymov is dragged back through the KGB prisons and the heroic tank commander Novikov, who are both vying for the love of the same woman, is also denounced and called back to Moscow.
On the German side the blind faith in Hitler is exposed as the sixth army is surrounded and then finally forced to surrender and those that are Nazi party members are ridiculed in the same way that right-minded people criticise the Communist party/
But the main theme of the book along with the title struggle to overcome fate – which the system seems to be in charge of – and enjoy life is the moral questions that Grossman raises. In a passage that includes a meeting between a dye-in-the-wool communist and the commander of a Nazi prisoner of war camp the suggestion is made that both the communist and the Nazi systems are not that far apart but are in fact mirrored with their one party state, aggression and disregard of individual liberty. The battle here is for the ability to speak your mind and most of the time reality has to be distorted as the system turns saints into sinners and soldiers into cowards.
It is well written?
Despite its length Grossman has an ability to put together a book that operates on various different levels including the political and the emotional. The characters work on their own, the battle scenes and fear of death at the hands of the enemy are powerful and the political muscle of the state has a genuine frustration and incredulity to it. In the world of journalism the answer to the question a writer often asks about how long the story should be is: “write it to what it deserves”. You sense it would have been difficult to write a book that on one hand described the world in 1942 across Russia along with making an incredibly powerful statement about the political systems of both Germany and Russia without using all 855 pages. Add to that the chapter where Viktor’s Jewish mother writes to him about life in the ghetto and her inevitable death – one of the most moving pieces that you are every likely to come across about the holocaust – and there is a very powerful statement being made throughout the book about the evil of anti-Semitism.
Should it be read?
If you ever want to know what it might have felt like not only to be trapped in a city under siege, facing charges that have been completely fabricated and living in fear of conversations that you made with friends years before then this is the book that provides the insights. This is a piece of work that was “arrested” by the KGB and aged the author by years because he believed that his own country was ready to read something that was not only critical but true. They weren’t but luckily it was smuggled out and has become the well-known piece of literature. It deserves to be read because of its message and story but also because of the costs the author paid personally to deliver this novel.
The bullets and bombs might be flying around Stalingrad but the most dangerous move to make on both sides – that share the disregard of individual rights – is to speak your mind
Version read – Vintage Classics