This is my review of Life And Fate (Orange Inheritance) by Vasily Grossman.
This is one of the few "mind shifting" books I have read in that it may alter your perception of the meaning and value of life, and the nature of freedom – the right to live with one's own individual quirks. Inspired by Tolstoy's "War and Peace" and informed by Grossman's firsthand experiences on the Soviet front attempting to drive the Nazis back from Stalingrad, this modern masterpiece by the Jewish Ukrainian journalist deserves to be more widely known.
Initially banned despite the political "thaw" under Khrushchev, I believe because Grossman's parallels between the totalitarian nature of Nazism and Stalinism were too hard to take, we must be thankful that copies were smuggled out to be published in the west.
My praise stands despite my difficulty in "getting into" the work. This is partly due to the cast of more than 150 characters with either difficult to grasp or overly similar names (Krymov v. Krylov, etc.), which require frequent reference to the glossary at the back. Then, there is the continual shift from a German labour camp, to Stalingrad, to a family evacuated from Moscow to Kazan and so on, to encounter yet another group of people, but never being quite sure whether this is a "one-off experience" or whether they are minor or major players who will reappear a couple of hundred pages later. All that connects the various scenes is that the characters are in some way related or acquainted.
There is no single strong plot, just many descriptions in the "social realist" style. This is sometimes wooden, and the structure ramshackle, but all this is offset by some brilliant writing.
I suspect that each reader will be hooked eventually by a different event. In my case it was the account of the Russian officer casually risking German sniper fire to visit his men holed up in various bunkers. For others, it may be the Russian mother's grief to learn that her soldier son has died from his wounds, and her inability, despite remaining sane in every other respect, to accept that he is really dead.
The gifted but prickly physicist Viktor Shtrum, modelled on Grossman himself, comes nearest to being the central character. His agonised thoughts are subtly captured as he oscillates between criticism of the Stalinist regime, fear over being condemned for this, an irresistible desire for praise and recognition of his work, a sense of release when he dares to stand up to the political stooges or minders who run the show at his institute in exchange for material benefits, despite their own mediocrity as scientists, or his need to justify to himself his occasional human weakness under the pressure to conform.
There are powerful scenes of battle, although mostly it is a question of waiting to advance or surveying the aftermath. Grossman does not shrink from the most shocking and moving scenes, such as a woman and boy entering a death camp even to the point of perishing in the gas chamber. Yet this is written with such sensitivity that it reads like a memorial to those who suffered.
Despite all the grimness, there is a good deal of wry humour, with some witty dialogues and moments or high tension. Landscapes are often vividly described, such as the wild tulips on the steppes of the Kalmyck, near the Caspian Sea, which I found on "Google" with some other scenes which exactly illustrate Grossman's descriptions.
I plan to keep a copy of this book to read again later and cannot recommend "Life and Fate" too highly.