Fragile and persistent shoots of humanity keep struggling through
Vasily Grossman was a Ukrainian journalist, a Jew, who wrote this searing book, an expose of the Janus face of totalitarianism, whether of the left or the right, in 1960 after Stalin’s death. Though the book was submitted for publication in Russia, it was suppressed and copies destroyed, as too dangerous. The book had a strange life, as a copy on microfilm was smuggled out into the West after Grossman’s death (1964) – it would clearly have endangered his life had this happened whilst he was still alive, and the book finally was published in the West in 1980, and not in his native land until 1988
It took me a long time to finally finish reading this difficult, painful book. Not because it is poorly written, but because its subject matter, set around the siege of Stalingrad, and the squaring up of 2 totalitarian systems against each other, carries too much awful cruelty and dreadful reality to easily stay with. We are talking the atrocities of both the Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet gulags here. The systematic excesses of ideologies which believed that the ends justify the means. Wherever such isms get in the way of ‘humanity’, the road to expending humanity itself as an unfortunate statistic is walked down.
Grossman’s powerful book achieves its effect not through a blow-by-blow graphic account of torture, elimination and cruelty, but through a constant searching for, and a belief, in the ordinary, powerful smallness of the individual, through a passionate belief in the value of the individual – not in some ghastly Randian hierarchical way – in a way which values the unique preciousness of each individual life. Time and again, Grossman sets the impersonalities of the state machine (whether of the left or the right) its inhumaneness and its ability to negate and destroy life, individual experience, warm connection and empathy, versus the sometimes irrational reality of the ‘human’ response. Powerful images of what this means are given in such instances as the actions of the childless, middle aged Jewish doctor, instinctively seeking to shield the motherless young boy with her own body, as they stand in the killing shower rooms, breathing in cyanide gas. This image, of humanity breaking through surfaces again in the elderly Russian woman, against all reason, offering a crust of bread to a German, following the surrender of the German army. Grossman understands the pressures by which our humanity is eroded. This is a book written not in hatred of ‘the enemy’, be they ‘the Germans’ ‘the kulaks’ ‘the Bolsheviks’ ‘the Mensheviks’ – but with a passionate affirmation that the answer can only lie in ‘the human response’, not in the ideological response.Despite the dreadfulness of the subject matter, and what it says about us as a species, this remains a passionately hopeful book, one on the side of ‘life’, giving us, again and again, these images of the human moment, the friendship, the love, the compassion, the empathy, the very persistence of life itself, seeking to break through.
Life and Fate Amazon UK
Life and Fate Amazon USA