by Killian Quigley
Published by NYRB Classics, 2009 | 272 pages
Few have witnessed more horrors of the twentieth century than Vasily Grossman. Born in 1905, he lived through the Russian Civil War, the Red Terror, the regimes of Lenin and Stalin, and the purges of 1937–38. During World War II, he worked as a newspaper correspondent for the Red Army and filed frontline reports from Stalingrad to Berlin. His 1944 article, “The Hell of Treblinka,” was the first journalistic account of a Nazi extermination camp and was later used as evidence in the Nuremberg trials.
Unsurprisingly, his fiction is solemn and severe. Life and Fate, his nearly nine-hundred-page masterwork, is a fierce condemnation of totalitarianism. Its length and sweep, ranging from Germany to Siberia, beg comparisons to War and Peace, as do its historical and political concerns. The novel uses one family’s fragmentation in the Battle of Stalingrad to juxtapose Nazi and Soviet states, ultimately finding that both are bound by common ideology. It is as deep as it is vast, and it remains a monument to the victims of the mid-twentieth century.
Everything Flows, only a quarter as long as its predecessor, is even more direct with its indignation. Ivan Grigoryevich, the novel’s closest attempt at a protagonist, returns by train to Moscow after spending twenty-nine years in Soviet labor camps. He visits his cousin, Nikolay Andreyevich. The encounter provides Grossman the opportunity to explore the difficult issue of complicity. In the wake of Stalin’s death and the state’s official admission of its crimes, Nikolay must reassess his own role in the purges. Nikolay realizes that his are sins of silent involvement—that despite reservations and justifiable fears, he has contributed to and profited from the deaths of colleagues. But the characterization of Nikolay is so compassionate that we feel only empathy for him. This is one of Grossman’s most eloquent portrayals of Soviet violence. He spells out the essential moral contradiction of a totalitarian state: “People did not want to do evil to anyone, yet they did evil all through their lives.”
Ivan’s homecoming is not triumphant. He sleeps in train stations and has difficulty finding work. He is unable to rekindle relationships with friends and relatives from his prior life. An act as quotidian as walking down the street is transformed by his time in the labor camps. Where once he saw secondhand bookshops, concert halls, and libraries, he now sees police stations, passport registration offices, and public places where he might sleep. Freedom is overwhelming and terrifying. But even as Ivan dreams of returning to the known world of gulag, he believes “there is no higher happiness than to leave the camp, even blind and legless, to creep out of the camp on one’s stomach and die—even only ten yards from the accursed barbed wire.”
Everything Flows is an unconventional (and unfinished) novel. It favors incident over plot and many of the scenes from Ivan’s return are points of departure into abstraction. It contains a play, which dramatizes the trial of four “Judases,” each of whom represent an archetypical informant. The final quarter of the novel contains a series of essays on Lenin and Stalin. While some of these digressions may tax the reader’s patience, others encompass some of the novel’s most moving passages. Ivan’s landlord narrates her involvement in the Holodomor, the terror-famine of 1932-33 that took the lives of five million Ukrainians. Her story, like the novel itself, is a denunciation, not of a sibling or a spouse or a neighbor or a coworker, but of an entire country.
Anthony Marra is an MFA candidate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His fiction has appeared in Narrative.