BY VASILY GROSSMAN
Quercus, 400pp, £9.99
In introducing one of the greatest chroniclers of Stalin’s Russia, the Great Patriotic War and The Holocaust to a new generation, it is a basic requirement that the publishers arrange material in a clear and orderly manner convenient to the reader. I am not at all sure that in this volume of short fiction and essays by Vasily Grossman, they have succeeded. Fortunately, in Grossman we have a writer whose power of storytelling, compelling reportage and unflinching courage transcends the shortcomings of this arrangement.
Grossman deserves a special, if not revered, place as a recorder of some of the worst excesses of the 20th century – indeed, of any century.
A casual reader may be lured into thinking this to be a collection of fictional short stories depicting the hardships and privations of Soviet life. But on page 126 comes an abrupt and horrifying awakening. Here begins the most searing and unforgettable inclusion in this book. It is not a short story or a piece of fiction at all. It should in truth stand apart from the other pieces in this book, in a separate section and with an extended foreword. It is Grossman’s account of “The Hell of Treblinka”.
It was written shortly after he arrived at the extermination camp with the Red Army in early August 1944 and quickly published in November of that year. It was soon translated into several languages, but this is the first translation of the full text in English.
For all the decades that have passed since then; for all the trials, films, books, documentaries and traumatic memories that time has yielded up, nothing prepares us for the force of Grossman’s description; his detailed, harrowing reconstruction of what happened, from the moment the freight trains arrived with their human cargo at a mocked-up station giving the cynically calculated illusion of normality, to the horrific tree-lined tunnels of death to the gas chambers. On this barbaric journey the victims suffered a sustained barrage of terror, humiliation, beatings, torture and a depth of barbarity unbelievable without Grossman’s detailed narrative. More than 780,000 Jews were murdered at Treblinka. I found it impossible to read this work at one sitting and had to break off. “The reader must believe me when I say it is equally hard to write it”, Grossman confesses after a particularly gruelling passage in the narrative. “’Why write about it then?’ someone may well ask. ‘Why recall such things?’ It is the writer’s civic duty to learn this truth. To turn away, to close one’s eyes and walk past is to insult the memory of those who have perished.”
The power of this account lies in its unflinching detail. Following a visit to the camp by Himmler after the Nazi defeat at Stalingrad, the camp commandant was ordered to dig up the hundreds of thousands of bodies and burn them. Camp inmates who helped in this appalling task were then routinely shot. Huge furnaces were installed for this task and the ashes scattered by children along the nearby roads, making them, Grossman recalls, “black, like a mourning ribbon”. Car wheels “make a peculiar swishing sound from the road, and, when I was taken along it, I kept hearing a sad whisper from beneath the wheels, like a timid complaint”.
Grossman was, with Ilya Ehrenburg, the most outstanding war correspondent embedded with the Red Army. His articles were read on the front and at home till the paper they were printed on was in tatters.
He was renowned for his heroic coverage of the battle of Stalingrad. But he was to suffer from the growing post-war anti-semitism of the Soviet dictator.
Grossman’s account of the battle of Stalingrad, written in 1949, (the title later changed to “For a Just Cause”) was at first accepted for publication, then postponed, criticised, then publicly denounced for failing to accord with the official Soviet myth. It was not to appear for decades.
Grossman had already offended Stalin, who had earlier vetoed his candidacy for a Stalin Prize. Not even his signatory to a document denouncing those accused in the trumped-up “Doctors’ Plot” was likely to spare him arrest and imprisonment. What almost certainly saved him was the death of Stalin in March 1953. Weeks later, the denunciations of his work fell silent.
Grossman was no slavish communist but he was, like millions of Russians, intensely loyal to his country and its titanic fight for survival in the war against the Nazis. He had earned the nickname “Lucky” during the war. But he was more likely saved by that demonic waywardness of Stalin’s Russia which Grossman summarised in a word which he then peppered through his stories: precipitate.
The Road, while painstakingly edited, is not helpfully organised for the reader. A comprehensive introduction would have served better than explanation and narrative chopped up and scattered through the book. “Treblinka” should have been separated from the short stories and the explanatory essay placed as a foreword to it; the chronology should have been at the beginning, not lost at the back, together with the author biography; the fate of Soviet Russia’s cultural elite should also have been set out as part of the introduction, not as an appendix. Above all, the detailed and informative notes to the text should have been carried at the foot of each page as they arose, rather than unhelpfully at the back, requiring constant flipping backwards and forwards. These points aside, The Road is an important addition to our understanding and appreciation of this powerful and enduring writer.