I’m in Singapore, en route to Russia, and I’ve just finished reading Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. It is, as Linda Grant says in her introduction, an important book, one to be shared with generations to come, not least because it warns against the dangers of totalitarianism, or any kind of -ism, really.
The book follows the fortunes of the Shaposhnikov Family during World War II – Viktor, a physicist and member of the Academy of Sciences, his wife Lyudmila, their daughter Nadya, and Lyudmila’s son Tolya by her first marriage. But it is much, much more than this: it is a moving meditation on the sufferings of a people in war, and an exposé of the excesses of any regime that seeks to impose absolute power over its people.
There is a vast cast of characters, too many to delineate when I am about to pack up my suitcase again, ready for the next leg of my journey to Moscow. The ones that stand out in my memory most strongly are the soldiers in House 6/1 in Stalingrad, each one of whom comes vividly alive as they repulse the German onslaught. The ones I will never forget are those on the journey to the Gas Chamber: until their advance was stopped at Stalingrad the Germans were very quick to identify the Jews and send them to their deaths. Also memorable are the Russians who, having denounced others in order to curry favour with Stalin or to avoid disfavour themselves, ended up in interrogation or exile.
Life and Fate is a long book (800+ pages) but it took longer to read than I’d expected because on almost every page there is a passage to trigger reflection:
There is nothing more difficult than to be a stepson of the time; there is no heavier fate than to live in an age that is not your own. … Time loves only those it has given birth to itself; its own children, its own heroes, its own labourers. Never can it come to love the children of a past age, any more than a woman can love the heroes of a past age, or a stepmother love the children of another woman.
Such is time: everything passes, it alone remains; everything remains, it alone passes. And how swiftly and noiselessly it passes. Only yesterday you were sure of yourself, strong and cheerful, a son of the time. But now another time has come – and you don’t even know it. (p35)
The ordinary passage of time in stable societies like mine can have this impact on an individual – how much more so it must be in societies undergoing radical change!
Today as the microchip rules almost every aspect of our lives, (and facilitates the writing of this blog) , it is fascinating to read Grossman’s thoughts about ‘electronic machines’. Writing in 1960, although he erroneously predicted that these machines would be monstrous in size he saw their future as limitless – able to listen to music and appreciate art – even able to compose melodies, paint pictures and write poems – but he wondered whether such machines could ever approximate the soul of man. Could a machine, he wondered, compare to man, with his childhood memories, his tears of happiness or his unreasoning joy? Would a machine do what fascism did, and annihilate tens of millions of people?
One of the most memorable scenes in this book is the one where Ikonnikov, a slave worker in the German Concentration camp, refuses to continue pouring the concrete for the gas ovens. Here Grossman asserts the power of the individual, even when confronted with the implacable power of the state. For even when the individual refusal to do wrong seems to achieve nothing, it has moral authority.
But how can people carry on working?’ asked Ikonnikov. ‘How can we help to prepare such a horror?’
Chernetsov shrugged his shoulders. ‘Do you think we’re in England or something? Even if eight thousand people refused to work, it wouldn’t change anything. They’d be dead in less than an hour.’
‘No,’ said Ikonnikov. ‘I can’t. I just can’t do it’.
… I’m not asking for absolution of sins. I don’t want to be told that it’s the people with power over us who are guilty, that we’re innocent slaves, that we’re not guilty because we’re not free. I am free. I’m building a Vernichtungslager. I have to answer to the people who’ll be gassed there. I can say ‘No’. There’s nothing can stop me – as long as I can find the strength to face my destruction. I will say ‘No!’ (p288-9)
Life and Fate is a serious book, but it is not all doom and gloom. Many of the characters have a droll sense of humour, and Grossman uses irony to lighten the mood in many places. There are sequences which highlight the absurdity of the Soviet bureaucracy, such as its preoccupation with residence permits in Stalingrad when the city was under siege, and also the irrationality of Stalin’s centralised decision-making during the prosecution of the war. But the novel also highlights the risk that any Soviet citizen took if he ignored even the silliest of orders, because there was always someone who might profit by denunciation, and there was always someone who would cooperate with the authorities in order to save his own skin. Again and again characters naïvely state that ‘you don’t get arrested for nothing’ when in fact arrest was arbitrary, irrational and often mere fate. Again and again in the exigencies of war people find themselves speaking freely for the first time in decades – only to find later that their words have been reported…with disastrous results. Again and again, characters naïvely tell each other not to worry about ominous signs, only to find that yes, the Jews are being deported to their deaths; that yes, the dissident is being exiled to Siberia; that yes, they are sentenced to imprisonment without the right to correspondence – which is code for being shot.
The research done by Viktor, the central character, is a metaphor for the Soviet experiment. He finds that his experimental results don’t fit the theory, so the researchers tinker with the theory to try to make it fit. It seems unthinkable to reject the theory, so they try to make the old theory part of a new theory. That doesn’t work either, and the reason it doesn’t is because the new theory is conceived in freedom. Likewise, it took a very long time for the Soviets to realise that their economic and social theory doesn’t work…
Even though much of this magnificent book is tragedy which may reduce a reader to tears, there are also many beautiful moments to savour. An old Russian woman who gives her last crust of bread to a German soldier; two men from opposing armies grasp each other’s hands in the darkness of bombardment in a Stalingrad bunker. These moments are a celebration of humanity in extremis; they promise goodness and hope.
Like Linda Grant, I think this book deserves to be more widely read so I hope that for all its inadequacies, this review of mine inspires some to get a copy and read it.
Author: Vasily Grossman
Title: Life and Fate
Translated by Robert Chapman
Publisher: Vintage, 2011
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings.