Everything flows

This is one of the most painful chapters in the book. Robert Chandler did a very good job, but some of the book’s dimensions and colours unfortunately did not survive, like the peculiar Russo-Ukrainian creole language (surzhik) still spoken in Central and Eastern Ukraine.

Sometimes he felt frightened. How was it possible for such happiness to have come into his life? How was it possible that he could wake in the middle of the night and find himself listening to the breathing of a wife and a son?

Whoever he was with, Vasily Timofeyevich felt shy and timid. How could he have the right to something like this?

But that was how it was. He walked back from work and saw smoke coming out of the chimney and a baby’s nappy drying on the fence. He would see his wife bending over the cradle or smiling about something as she put a bowl of borsch on the table. He would look at her hands, at her hair peeping out from beneath her kerchief. He would listen to her talking about their little one or about the neighbour’s ewe. Sometimes she would go out into the storeroom and he would miss her and even feel lonely. As soon as she came back, he would feel happy again. Catching his eye, she would give him a sad, meek smile.

Vasily Timofeyevich died first, two days before little Grisha. He had been giving almost every crumb to his wife and child, and so he died before them. Probably there has been no self-sacrifice in the world greater than this – and no despair greater than his despair as he looked at his wife, already disfigured by the dropsy of death, and at his dying son. Even during his last hour he felt no indignation, no anger with regard to the great and senseless thing accomplished by the State and Stalin. He did not even ask, ‘Why?’ He did not once ask why the torment of death by starvation had been allotted to him and his wife – meek, obedient and hard-working as they were – and to their quiet little one-year-old boy.

Still in their rotten rags, the skeletons spent the winter together. The husband, his young wife and their little son went on smiling whitely, not separated even by death. The next spring, after the first starlings had arrived, the representative from the district land office entered the hut, covering his mouth and nose with a handkerchief. He looked at the paraffin lamp with no glass, at the icon in the corner, at the little chest of drawers, at the cold cast-iron pots and at the bed.

‘Two and a child,’ he called out. The brigade leader, standing on this most holy threshold of love and meekness, nodded and made a mark on a scrap of paper.

Back in the fresh air, the representative looked at the white huts and the green orchards and said, ‘Take the corpses away – but don’t bother about this ruin. It’s not worth trying to repair it.’ Once again the brigade leader nodded.

A powerful text, there is little hope that it will make an admirer of Fidel Castro, Joseph Stalin or Vladimir Lenin, or last century’s social experiments in general –  a better person. I don’t believe this was its purpose. Grossman wrote it to make peace with himself.

The book is available in Amazon. Readers’ comments:

Grossman constructs a narrative around this homecoming to illustrate this, and to open up the dark heart of Russia’s communist legacy. He weaves his message around a complex array of characters, with the result a damning indictment of an evil regime that brutalised and murdered its own people.

Grossman skilfully utilises language, metaphors and similes that not only create strong images, but which also provoke thought and feeling. He switches viewpoint effortlessly, pulling the reader into the story with ease.

The final chapters are compelling and astonishing, as Grossman goes deeper and deeper into that black Soviet heart. We are left in no doubt who are the guilty, but despite the overall dark tone of this novel, we are left with hope for the human race.

***

This is an amazing book; it informed me, enthralled me and unsettled me. A couple of the book’s chapters were devoted to Ivan’s dwellings on the fate of the women who were incarcerated in the camps and the inhumane treatment that these women received made me cry – as did the section narrated by Anna Sergeyevna, Ivan’s lover, about her involvement as an activist in the man-made Terror Famine of 1932-3. This is not the sort of book you can say you have enjoyed reading, but it is one of those books you appreciate having read.