Military histories tend to be less-than-riveting for readers who are not war buffs – and who wants to join that club? – but novels based around non-fictional episodes of warfare can fill the gap created by our need to know more about significant moments of military history.
The novelist who excels in this regard is Vasily Grossman and the publication of the first authoritative English translation of his “The people immortal” confirms his incomparable status.
Written when the kind of events depicted in it were still taking place, the novel is remarkable for its blending of fiction with fact.
An Afterword provides the background and helps register the novel as a historical document in fictional form.
German forces invaded Russia in June 1941 and the first months witnessed overwhelming success against Soviet defences. Stalin’s purge in 1937 of his best and most experienced commanders and generals left military leaders unable to cope and terrified of a draconian order requiring everyone to fight to the death, even if surrounded.
Grossman’s meeting with Commissar Nikolay Shliapin in September, a political officer who inspired an escape from an encirclement, provided the factual basis for “The people immortal”.
When he died soon after, caught in a second encirclement, Grossman’s homage was to make him his central character; conversations and incidents reported by Shliapin find their way into the novel.
The devastating impact of the invasion is graphically conveyed when fleeing people, their skin coloured by clouds of dust on the road, take on the appearance of corpses.
The colossal scale of the conflict is marked by “hundreds of thousands of Red Army boots… tank tracks… tractors and artillery… herds of cows… and the little shoes of girls.”
That last detail is characteristic of Grossman; he never forgets the human cost of warfare.
A soldier mourns the death of a comrade, “But my Seryozha’s gone. They killed my friend”. “I know”, responds another, “He was a good man. And we’ll never see him again.” The words’ simplicity, far from being trite, register the stark reality and the depth of loss occasioned by the war.
Grossman was born in Ukraine and his novel is set there. It first appeared in instalments in an army newspaper, Red Star, for which Grossman worked as a war correspondent.
At the time, 1942, Soviet forces had yet to recover their confidence and believe the Nazis could be defeated: a German commander, his upper body appearing from the open hatch of his leading tank, seems immortal – ‘a god of unjust war’ – but the novel’s title holds out the promise of a reversal: people’s sacrifices will be remembered and Nazi gods will be banished.
To read “The people immortal” as merely idealistic and propagandist would be myopic. It is a record of humiliation, the pain of loss and the heroic will to resist injustice.
“The people immortal”, by Vasily Grossman, is published by Maclehose Press.