Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Life and Fate

by Vasily Grossman

Long story short, this is the World War II version of War and Peace. It's a sweeping narrative following the fortunes — personal, political, military — of an extended family during the battle for Stalingrad (though most of them aren't actually in Stalingrad at the time); it's 870 pages, plus eight pages of character names (not even including the many nicknames Russians use).

It's also a really fantastic book, well worth reading. Special interest in Russian lit is not required, but it would help. Also not for the faint-hearted; you'll be mired in the tragedy of war, the tragedy of the human condition, the tragedy — and tragic ironies — of post-revolutionary Russia. (An example of the latter: "The soul of wartime Stalingrad was freedom. ... Here, ten years later, was constructed a vast dam, one of the largest hydro-electric power stations in the world — the product of the forced labour of thousands of prisoners.")

On top of all that tragedy, I found other reasons to almost cry. (I seem to be almost crying more often as I get older. I get all verklempt every time I think about Jimmy Carter.) This book is about a war in the '40s, was written in the '50s and published in the U.S. in the '80s, and the world is still effed up in the same exact ways. I know I shouldn't find that surprising, yet somehow it's devastating. Won't we ever learn?

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