Review: The Road
Almost half-a-century after the death of the great Ukrainian-born Jewish writer, Vasily Grossman, his prose still burns
Vasily Grossman: witness to brutal excess who conveyed his experience in vivid journalism and poignant fiction
By Vasily Grossman (Trans: Robert and Elizabeth Chandler)
Maclehose Press, £20
'Why am I writing? Which truth am I confirming? Which truth do I wish to triumph?" So wrote Maxim Gorky in his report on Grossman's first novel, Glyukauf.
Grossman witnessed the siege of Stalingrad and the immediate aftermath of the extermination camp at Treblinka as a journalist travelling with the Red Army. His mother was murdered by the Nazis at Berdichev, as were many friends and colleagues during Stalin's reign of terror. He must often have pondered how best to convey the excesses of the brutal times he witnessed and endured.
This superbly edited compendium of his writing, containing short stories, journalism and letters to his dead mother, allows us to assess the nature and success of his enterprise. Through its lucid notes and essays it also serves as a first-class companion to the terrible history of mid-20th-century central Europe.
At the heart of the book is Grossman's essay, The Hell of Treblinka. Written in September 1944 and based on the testimonies of survivors, it is a passionate account of German crimes so barbaric that, next to them, "Dante's Hell seems no more than an innocent game on the part of Satan". Like Primo Levi, Grossman was a chemist but, for all its ghastly detail, what should be a powerful portrayal of horror often sinks beneath the weight of a rhetoric that would have been better exchanged for a more spare and factual account.
Levi knew that his subject needed no embellishment to move and appal the reader but Grossman's account must also be seen as a propaganda exercise, extolling the virtues of the great Red Army in its victory over a heinous foe.
More telling are the short stories, particularly those influenced by Grossman's favourite writer, Chekhov, where we are given snapshots of small lives irrevocably lost or altered by the cataclysmic events surrounding them.
Among these, The Old Teacher is one of the first works of fiction to deal with the Shoah. Its hero, a man who has never known love, is comforted on the edge of a Nazi execution pit by a former pupil: "Like a mother, she covered his eyes with the palms of her hands." Equally poignant is the fate of the aristocratic doctor in In Kislovodsk who commits suicide with his wife rather than become involved in the execution of the Russian prisoners of war under his care.
Also successful are those stories in which Grossman allows his artist's imagination to roam freely rather than simply convey the events journalistically. In the title story, The Road --- a potted, alternative version to Grossman's masterpiece Life and Fate (then suppressed, to his profound distress, by the Soviet authorities) --- the progress of the Italian army through Abyssinia to Stalingrad is seen through the eyes of a mule, while The Dog tells the story of the first animal in space, from its capture on the streets to its orbit of the earth and back.
Mark Glanville is the author of ‘The Goldberg Variations’, a memoir