It took me two months to finish the epic Life and Fate but what an experience it was. The accolades showered upon it are fully deserved. The prospect of writing about the book daunted me, I was afraid I could never to do it justice. And yet, there was a part of me that nevertheless wanted to pen some thoughts, so here goes…
The story of how Life and Fate was published is as riveting as the novel itself.
Grossman began writing the novel when Stalin was still alive and the finished manuscript was submitted for publication around late 1960. However, the KGB raided his apartment and confiscated all his notebooks and manuscripts and even the various forms of copies. Miraculously, Grossman left two copies of the manuscripts with friends, a fact which escaped the notice of the KGB. Grossman was told that his novel will never see the light of day, which in some sense was true, because at the time he died in 1964, the novel was as yet unpublished. It was only a decade later, that his friend Lipkin, who was in possession of one of the surviving copies, put it onto a microfilm and with the help of Vladimir Voinovich smuggled it out of the country. It was published in the West in the 1980s.
Life and Fate is a truly extraordinary novel, with its sweeping views on Stalinist Russia, its political landscape during and after the historic Battle of Stalingrad explored through the story of the Shaposhnikov family.
AN OVERVIEW OF THE CHARACTERS
Lyudmila Shaposhnikova is married to Viktor Shtrum, a respected theoretical physicist. When the novel opens the couple, along with their daughter Nadya, is living in exile in the provincial town of Kazan. It is late 1942, the heart of World War Two, and the Germans are advancing over vast swathes of Russia. The battle is now poised at a crucial juncture and the city under spotlight is Stalingrad. Staying with the Shtrums in Kazan is Alexandra Shaposhnikova, Lyudmila’s mother.
We are also introduced to Viktor’s circle of friends and acquaintances, both personal and professional, in Kazan. There’s Sokolov, his good friend and also a mathematician at Viktor’s lab. Sokolov’s wife is Marya Ivanovna, Lyudmila’s friend. While Viktor’s work at the physics institute, their married life and their social circle form one thread of the novel, through Lyudmila we are introduced to another character and subplot – her former husband Abarchuk who is now imprisoned in a Russian labour camp.
Meanwhile, there is Lyudmila’s younger sister Yevgenia, resident of Kuibyshev and two of the subplots in the book revolve around the two men she loves – Novikov, her lover, commanding officer of a tank corps that will play a crucial role in the Russian victory in Stalingrad, and her former husband Krymov, a commissar in the Red Army and a staunch Party man, who is accused of being a traitor by the State.
Two more subplots center on more members of the Shaposhnikov family, – Lyudmila’s younger sister Marusya drowned in the Volga, but her husband Stepan is the director of the Stalingrad power station and resides there with his daughter Vera. Vera, meanwhile, is in a relationship with Viktorov, who is a jet fighter pilot, and the story of this fighter squadron of the Russian Air Force forms another subplot in the novel.
We are also introduced to a slew of characters and consequent story arcs – political prisoners in a German concentration camp, of which one chief character is Mostovsky an old Bolshevik who plots with his fellow prisoners to murder the Germans; Sofya Levinton, a Jew and a friend of the Shaposhnikovs in those normal days pre-war, who is now captured to be massacred along with her fellow Jews in gas chambers. And more…
EPIC BREADTH AND DEPTH OF THE NOVEL, MULTIFACETED VIEWPOINTS
The cast of characters is huge and at the end of this gargantuan novel is a list running into several pages. The Shaposhnikov family’s story forms the nucleus of Life and Fate, but Grossman does not focus his lens on them alone. A slew of subplots radiate from the central story arc, and the main characters in most of these subplots are connected in some way or the other to the Shaposhnikov family.
These subplots are pretty wide ranging in terms of setting and scope adding layers of richness to the novel – we are privy to the lives and viewpoints of people engaged in combat on the battlefields (the tank corps, air force and soldiers), the grimness of Jewish ghettoes, the horrific, fatalistic journey to the gas chambers, political prisoners stationed in Siberian camps, a Stalingrad power station, an isolated Russian outpost called House 6/1 surrounded by Germans and led by the irreverent Grekov who refuses to send reports to his superiors, the surrealism of the vast Kalmyk Steppes, the Kafkaesque nature of the Lubyanka prison and so on.
It is these multiplicity of angles and viewpoints that give a broader idea of the definitive moment of World War Two history, what defined the political landscape of Russia at the time, how the Battle of Stalingrad united the Russians to fight against Fascism, and how at the same time they grappled with totalitarianism and terror unleashed by Stalin in their own country.
STORY OF A MARRIAGE
While Life and Fate excels in how it paints the macro picture of a country, it is also brilliant in the way it captures the stories of individual lives. One of those facets is the story of a marriage, the marriage of Viktor and Lyudmila. The couple has been married for many years, and Viktor has always shared his worries, his successes and biggest challenges with her, but the cracks are gradually beginning to show. The strain in the marriage is a culmination of resentments, miscommunication and secrets.
Viktor is Lyudmila’s second husband; her former husband Abarchuk is a political prisoner in a Siberian camp, while her only son from that marriage, Tolya, is away fighting at the front. Lyudmila has always resented Viktor’s mockery of Tolya and his unflattering attitude towards him, while Viktor has never really forgiven Lyudmila for not willing to let his mother stay with them (she subsequently perishes in the concentration camp, her fate is revealed to us in the earlier part of the novel through a heartbreaking letter written to Viktor). Meanwhile, Viktor is secretly in love with Sokolov’s wife Marya Ivanovna, feelings that cause him much anguish.
AN INDICTMENT OF TOTALITARIANISM
Chapter 50 is one of the most extraordinary chapters in the novel as it discusses the devastating, inhuman aspects of a totalitarian state, how it can set in motion horrific pogroms of mass murder, and how a man’s yearning for freedom is the ultimate force that can defeat it. One of the defining features of totalitarianism is its reliance on violence (“the extreme violence of totalitarian social systems proved able to paralyse the human spirit through whole continents.”)
This ideology of violence and control breeds an atmosphere of intense distrust, suspicion and extreme anxiety. At any given point of time, the basic human instinct is to survive. This drive for self-preservation induces a majority of the population to throw even loved ones under the bus if it means that they can stay alive. But that’s not enough.
How does a totalitarian state sponsor mass murders? It is fair to say that the ordinary human being is averse to committing murder, of killing human life. Yes, there are exceptions – murderers exist in most countries, even civilized democracies are havens of crime, but for humans, killing is not a natural instinct like it is for wild animals. How is it then that the Nazis were able to compel its people to wipe out a race? What motivates ordinary people, who were otherwise never inclined towards violence, to agree to perform such horrific acts?
A man who has placed his soul in the service of Fascism declares an evil and dangerous slavery to be the only true good. Rather than overtly renouncing human feelings, he declares the crime committed by Fascism to be the highest form of humanitarianism; he agrees to divide people up into the pure and worthy and the impure and unworthy.
The instinct for self-preservation is supported by the hypnotic power of world ideologies. These call people to carry out any sacrifice, to accept any means, in order to achieve the highest of ends; the future greatness of the motherland, world progress the future happiness of mankind, of a nation, of a class.
IS COMMUNISM ANY DIFFERENT FROM FASCISM?
For the Russian population, united in its intent to defeat the invading Germans, obliterating Fascism so that Communism can triumph was the one true goal of the Battle of Stalingrad. But Grossman questioned that thinking, which can be evinced by this conversation between Mostovsky, an Old Bolshevik imprisoned in a German concentration camp, and Liss who is an SS official and the camp’s administrator. Liss essentially implies that for all the fighting between Fascist Germany and Communist Russia, they are really the same sides of a coin; an insinuation that greatly unsettles Mostovsky.
“What is the reason for our enmity? That your banks and factories belong to the people? That you’re internationalists and we’re preachers of racial hatred? That we set things on fire and you extinguish the flames? That the world hates us – and that its hopes are centred on Stalingrad? Is that what you people say…? Nonsense! There is no divide. It’s just been dreamed up. In essence we are the same – both one-Party States. Our capitalists are not the masters. The State gives them their plan. The State takes their profit and all they produce. As their salary they keep six percent of the profit. Your State also outlines a plan and takes what is produced for itself. And the people you call masters – the workers – also receive a salary from your one-party State.”
VIKTOR’S MORAL DILEMMA
The moral dilemma that confronts Viktor as the novel progresses is one of the stellar features of the novel where Grossman brilliantly evokes the complexity of Viktor’s emotions, those moments of painful realization of how powerless he is against Stalin’s political machinery as he battles to stay true to himself.
There are various points in the novel where the immense burden of being a citizen of a totalitarian state emerges. For instance, when the Shaposhnikovs are in Kazan, a convivial evening gathering of friends paves the way for intense conversations and debate on art, books and the notion of freedom; an interchange of ideas otherwise forbidden under Stalin’s rule. On a certain level that evening weighs heavy on Viktor lest it be reported, but on the other hand, it is the vibrant energy of that very evening that brings to an end the stasis that has overwhelmed Viktor in his work – a physics problem he is desperately trying to solve but is utterly stuck. That evening releases a flow of ideas and opens up new ways of thinking and progressing in his work.
Armed with this success, Viktor expects an elevation in his status in the scientific community, but when the time comes to move back to Moscow, he is forced to contend that the reality is entirely different, much to his confusion. Viktor’s freethinking scientific ideas, attuned with those of eminent Western scientists, hold no weight in Moscow’s science circles, whose chief institute is bogged down by red tape, and run by political appointees having no flair or understanding of the intricacies of the subject.
Viktor refuses to bow down to these pressures and subsequently finds himself isolated not only from his work but also from his closest colleagues, who in an instinct for self-preservation (as outlined in Grossman’s views on totalitarianism) abandon him.
This conflict in Viktor is wonderfully conveyed. Should he stand up for his ideas or should he bow down to State pressure? A brilliant scientist like him should be focusing on his work, but many a time Viktor finds himself brooding over petty matters – how some of his colleagues have received more favours or have attended dinners for which Viktor has not received any invitation.
During a critical point in his life, he does stand up for his ideas, but its consequences are grave and he is beset by newer worries of everyday living. Stripped off his privileges, Viktor is tormented by financial concerns, of how he can provide for his family if there is no forthcoming income.
Strangely, it is during this period of isolation that Viktor finds some modicum of peace. If he has hit rock bottom, things can’t get worse, can they? At one point, the fears of an impending imprisonment loom large, but at the same time Viktor finds solace in his interactions with his closest family. At some moments the dawning realization that the end is near fills him with peace, at the other times he is wracked by the terror of being arrested.
ANTI-SEMITISM AND THE HORRORS OF HOLOCAUST
The pages devoted to the Holocaust are very difficult to read, as they are meant to be. The letter that Viktor’s mother writes to him from the Jewish ghetto is poignant highlighting the inhumane living conditions in the ghettoes, and how many of its people gradually become de-sensitized and resigned to their fate. But there are others for whom the flame of hope refuses to go out, the conviction that things will improve and resolve, however improbable, burn bright (“I’ve realized now that hope almost never goes together with reason. It’s something quite irrational and instinctive.”)
Here are some more lines from her letter…
People carry on, Vitya, as though their whole life lies ahead of them. It’s impossible to say whether that’s wise or foolish – it’s just the way people are.
And then much later on, here is Grossman on anti-Semistism…
Anti-Semitism can take many forms – from a mocking, contemptuous ill-will to murderous pogroms.
Anti-Semitism is always a means rather than an end; it is a measure of the contradictions yet to be resolved. It is a mirror for the failings of individuals, social structures and State systems. Tell me what you accuse the Jews of – I’ll tell you what you’re guilty of.
During the darkest moments of his life in Moscow, Viktor is forced to confront the implications of his Jewish identity, how it holds greater weight in determining his future, much more than any of his scientific achievements.
THE MANY FACES OF HUMAN NATURE
The throbbing pulse of Life and Fate lies in its unwavering focus on humanity and generosity, its examination of the complexities of human nature, and its persistent moral questioning.
Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, feel and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right. But this is where a terrible, fateful error is born: the belief that these groupings in the name of a race, a God, a party or a State are the very purpose of life and not simply a means to an end. No! The only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and in his right to these peculiarities.
In terms of ideas, it focuses on the concepts of freedom, the fight between good and evil, the vitality of cultural discussions and so forth.
When the novel’s focus zooms on people, we glimpse the camaraderie between the Russian troops as they get ready for combat or when they already under heavy fire; the moments of kindness displayed by some ordinary Russians towards Germans even when their countries are at war.
Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.
We notice the angst of a mother losing her son in battle, heartbreaking scenes of the Holocaust where people cling on to irrational hope even in the throes of death, the gnawing despair of those wrongly arrested or stuck in labour camps, and how minds shrink and people slide into petty politics even when the nature of the problems they are confronted with is much more grave.
And last but not the least, Grossman is always holding forth his views on man’s eternal yearning for freedom that is hard to completely extinguish.
Does human nature undergo a true change in the cauldron of totalitarian violence? Does man lose his innate yearning for freedom? The fate of both man and the totalitarian State depends on the answer to this question. If human nature does change, then the eternal and the world-wide triumph of the dictatorial State is assured; if his yearning for freedom remains constant, then the totalitarian State id doomed.
Life and Fate was a profound reading experience and Robert Chandler is to be commended for his stellar translation that has ensured a much wider readership for this wonderful book. In his fascinating introduction, Chandler points out how Viktor Shtrum, in many ways, is Grossman’s alter-ego. Grossman was not always a dissident, he gradually became one later, and that’s one of the themes of Life and Fate – the complexities of life under totalitarian rule, the inconsistent behaviour it produces, and how hard it is for an individual to withstand its pressure.
But an invisible force was crushing him. He could feel its weight, its hypnotic power; it was forcing him to think as it wanted, to write as it dictated. This force was inside him; it could dissolve his will and cause his heart to stop beating…
Only people who have never felt such a force themselves can be surprised that others submit to it. Those who have felt it, on the other hand, feel astonished that a man can rebel against it even for a moment – with one sudden word of anger, one timid gesture of protest.
Highly, highly recommended!