Many people have compared this book to War and Peace. Clearly, there are similarities (although set in different wars and in very different Russias). However, this book also reminded me of Heller’s Catch-22. There were comic moments (Yevgenia’s struggle with the bureaucracy in Kuibyshev over a residence permit was one in particular) and its commentary about the inefficiency of the Soviety party system parallels some of Heller’s criticisms. Grossman draws great parallels between Novikov’s experience with the tanks (and difficulty with doing his job while working under/with a party official) and Shtrum’s experience in the lab (where Shisakov, as party official has ultimate power over the physicists).
He also does a great job describing the horror of the prison camps and the concentration camps. The book starts with the prison camps and (as a reader) we clearly emphathize with the political prisoners. Later, when David (the young boy) goes to the gas chamber in the concentration camps, things have been elevated such that it is clear how much worse this is from the silly little camps in Siberia (which had previously been the most wretched places imaginable). I was particularly struck by David’s thoughts of the fairy tale in which the wolf attacks the goat; and I was astounded when a bit later Hitler reminisces about the same fairy tale and becomes frightened. It is a great metaphor for the impending doom that both David and Hitler face. Similarly, Sofya’s thoughts as she enters the concentration camp: “She realized with surprise that although the process of evolution had taken millions of years, these people had needed only a few days to revert to the state of cattle, dirty and unhappy, captive and nameless.” and she“now understood the difference beween life and existence: her life had come to an end, but her existence could drag on indefinitely. And however wretched and miserable this existence was, the thought of violend detah still filled her with horror.” felt simultaneously trite and profound.
Another strength in the work is with Grossman’s grasp of human emotion and relationships. He touches on romantic love a few times and his thoughts were at times witty: “love being like a lump of coal: hot, it burns you; cold, it makes you dirty.” and other times profound: “Was it that his compulsion to share his life with her had been founded on a belief that his life mattered more to her than her own, that his life was her life? And that now he was no longer sure of this? Did she no longer love him? Or did he no longer love her?” As Shtrum evaluates his relationship with Marya Ivanonva he wavers between his desire and his knowledge of what is right: “What was happening depended only on them, but it seemed like a fate they were powerless to oppose. What lay between them was true and natural, they were no more responsible for it than a man is responsible for the light of day—and yet this truth inevitably engendered insincerity, deceit and cruelty towards those dearest to them. It was in their power to avoid deceit and cruelty; all they had to do was renounce this clear and natural light. One thing was plain: he had lost his peace of mind for ever. Whatever happened, he would never know peace. Whether he hid his love for the woman beside him or whether it became his destiny, he would not know peace. Whether he was with her, feeling guilty, or whether he was apart from her, aching for her, he would have no peace.”
He well describes the change in self-perception and perception of others; as things change we adjust our own perceptions and expectations. We are vessels for our experience and (especially through Shtrum) these experiences can change our emotional and social outlook at any time. “In those days he had been able to understand and love everything about his friends and comrades, while the least word or thought of his enemies had seemed alien and monstrous; now, however, he would sometimes glimpse in the thoughts of an enemy what he had once found important himself, and discover something strangely alien in the thought of his friends.” and “It was sweet to be unshakeable. In passing judgement on peole he had affirmed his own inner strength, his ideals, his purity. This was his consolation and his faith.” Grossman also makes the (again somewhat trite) comment about the passage of time: “Such is time: everything passes, it alone remains; everything remains, it alone passes.” Shtrum (despite being rather self-involved) has the decency to note: “Yes, we all of us have our failings’. But no one ever sincerely believes his own failings to be equal to those of other people.”
He discusses the importance of individuality (which is difficult in a soviet state) and kindness in humanity. “Among a million Russian huts you will never find even two that are exactly the same. Everything that lives is unique. It is unimaginable that two people, or two briar-roses, should be identical…if you attempt to erase the peculiarities and individuality of life by violence, then life itself must suffocate.” Along with this, he notes that “hope almost never goes together with reason. It’s something quite irrational and instinctive.” Despite the irrationality of hope and kindness it does not come from religion, but instead “is what is most truly human in a human being. It is what sets man apart, the highest achievement of his soul. No, it says, life is not evil! This kindness is both senseless and wordless. It is instinctive, blind. When Christianity clothed it in the teachings of the Church Fathers, it began to fade; its kernel became a husk. It remains potent only while it dumb and senseless, hidden in the living darkness of the human heart—before it becomes a tool or commodity in the hands of preachers, before its crude ore is forged into the gilt coins of holiness. It is as simple as life itself. Even the teachings of Jesus deprived it of its strength.” Real altruism holds its power in the giving of oneself, not in any hope of reward.
Overall Grossman makes many interesting and poignant points about the human condition. Historically, this was an important work because of its criticism of the soviet system, but it is also a beautiful piece of literature.