Saturday, January 16, 2010

NYRB Challenge #18: Returning From the Gulag. . .

Vasily Grossman's monumental novel Life and Fate has long been on my list of books to tackle one day. So I knew that at some point in this challenge, I'd definitely be reading the much shorter Everything Flows, translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler and Anna Aslanyan. This is definitely the book that has made the most emotional impact on me so far.

I'm still in awe at how much Grossman packed into a narrative that is barely longer than two hundred pages but then I think of what Solzhenitsyn accomplished with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The two books are perfect companion reads.

Everything Flows opens in a railway compartment where huddled silently in a corner, Ivan Grigoryevich is travelling to Moscow to see his cousin Nikolay. It's been three decades since the two men met; Ivan has only just been released after serving a thirty year sentence in the Soviet gulag. Stalin is now dead and Russia is not only changing but trying to grasp the massive implications of Stalin's murderous policies. While the novel focuses on Ivan's slow and difficult reintegration into society, there are also portraits of other luckier, Russians such as Nikolay, a scientist who chose his career over his conscience, and of Pinegin, the informer who ended up sending Ivan to the camps. Two particularly powerful segments deal with women's stories. Masha, a wife and mother, is separated from her family; her experience in the camp is a visceral example of Ivan's acknowledgement that, "in the labor camps of Kolyma, men were not equal to women. Men, really, had had it easier." Then there is the story of Anna Sergeyevna, a woman that Ivan lodges with when he finds work in a small town. She tells of her part in Stalin's horrific starvation economic policies in the early 1930s that resulted in the deaths of millions of Ukranian peasants. Yes, it's graphic. And an unutterably sad and powerful piece of writing.

Another extraordinary section of the novel is chapter seven in which Grossman explores the idea of informers and collective guilt:

At one end of the chain were two people at a table, drinking cups of tea and chatting. Next, in cozy lamplight, someone cultured and educated composed a report; or perhaps an activist gave a frank and straightforward speech at a meeting of the collective farm. And at the other end of the chain were crazed eyes; damaged kidneys; a skull pierced by a bullet; gangrenous, pus-oozing toes that had been bitten by the frost of the taiga; scurvy-ridden corpses in a log hut that served as the camp morgue.

There are brief descriptions of four different informers and their varying circumstances, and then a trial where the complicated issues of guilt are raised and debated. In a society of state-sponsored murder - who can claim to be entirely innocent? Why isn't the government itself being put on trial? And who has the right to ultimately judge? These are not the only questions raised in a novel that also attempts to place Stalin's era in the context of all Russian history. Grossman also challenges the notion of whether life and history are the progression of humanity's fight for freedom, or whether there really is no evolution because violence and its chaos is a constant that will always be with us, no matter what form it takes. I will leave it to the readers to come to their own conclusions and to discover which theory Ivan (and Grossman) end up espousing.

Kudos to NYRB for providing extras at the back of this edition: excellent end notes, a very helpful historical chronology, notes on the background to Stalin's agricultural collectivization policies, and an extensive glossary of historical, political and artistic people and organizations mentioned in the book.

This is an incredible novel that definitely deserves a wide readership. I'll also be checking out Grossman's journalism covering the Second World War, collected in A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, edited by Antony Beevor.

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