12.20.2009

Forever Flowing, by Vasily Grossman

Everything Flows
Forever Flowing
Forever Flowing (also translated as Everything Flows), by Vasily Grossman is not a novel as we normally think of it. There are characters and some things that resemble a plot are in there. But most of the book feels like Grossman ranting, like it's a cathartic release for the author. Grossman, who died of stomach cancer in 1964, was one of those Soviet writers who wouldn't kowtow to the government's idea of what authors should be writing. His books, including the monumental Life and Fate, were banned during his lifetime or forbidden from being printed during his lifetime. During World War II, Grossman was a reporter for Krasnaya Zvezda and followed the Red Army all the way from Stalingrad to Berlin. But Stalin's policies and the twisted regime that grew up around him really bothered Grossman. Considering Grossman's views, he was lucky not to have ended up in Siberia.

So, the book. The novel begins with Ivan Grigoryevich returns from almost thirty years of imprisonment in Siberia. Each chapter sets up a short episode in Ivan's life or in the life of a person he knows. The episodes evolve into extended stream of consciousness (sometimes) explorations in different aspects of life in the post-Stalin Soviet Union. Mostly, these episodes deal with what a psychiatrist might identify as survivor's guilt. One of the first shows Ivan's cousin realizing that, by saying nothing when fellow scientists were denounced and not denouncing anyone else, it doesn't mean that he was guiltless. Instead, he learns the lesson that Edmund Burke wrote about after the French Revolution: "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."

Later in the book, Grossman stages a mock trial of different kinds of informers. One is a person who actually believed that the denunciations were necessary. Another did it for personal gain. The third was afraid not to and named names during an interrogation. The judge and the prosecutor in this Kafka-esque chapter hurl accusations at the three Judases, as Grossman terms them, accusations similar to the ones that Ivan's cousin asked himself. The questions they ask are a lot like the ones we ask now in hindsight. The informers reply:
Your question, for all its seeming surface simplicity, is by no means simple...In actuality, why seek out now those guilty of crimes committed in the Stalinist era? That is like emigrating from the earth to the moon, and then bringing suit over a question of land boundaries on earth...Why are you so determined to expose those like us who are weak? Begin with the state. Try it! After all, our sin is its sin. (80)*
This conversation (or whatever the proper term for these episodes is) is repeated in variations for the course of the book. Almost everyone you meet in Forever Flowing is like that. Before Stalin died in 1953, they all did something that they regret, even if it was just not speaking up when the authorities came for a friend or a relative. The only innocents Grossman introduces us to are the ones that were sent out to the camps, like Ivan Grigoryevich.

Another psychological tangle that Grossman attempts to tease apart is the belief among some of these guilty people that some of them believed that the people they denounced really were criminals, that they were helping the state by spying on their friends and family and reporting anything that could possibly be construed as a violation of the rules of the regime. Grossman reports a short conversation between Ivan and another prisoner who still excused the actions of the government:
"When they chop down the forest, the chops fly, but the Party truth remains the truth and it is superior to my misfortune. And," he went on, pointing to himself, "I myself was one of the chips that flew when the forest was cut down."

And he was nonplussed when Ivan Grigoryevich said to him: "That's where the misfortune lies--in the fact that they're cutting down the forest. Why cut it down?" (105)
It's a question that I don't think I've seen asked in fiction before. All of the other books I've read that are set during Stalin's reign or immediately after his death just accept the Terror. Sure, Stalin and the psychopaths who set it up and ran the show get the blame. And the people who went along with it get some of the blame for not speaking up and stopping their government. But like I said, none of them ask the question about how it got started in the first place. Grossman does try to answer the question of why Soviet Russia happened, mostly by pointing out that there was no time in Russian history when the majority of people were really free. For centuries, most Russians were serfs. Unlike Europe, Russia didn't have a real middle class develop. They skipped whole stages of political development in their rush to communism. Or, as Grossman phrases it, "It is time for those who would understand Russia to understand that a thousand years of slavery have alone created the mystique of the Russian soul" (217).

The entire experience of reading Forever Flowing is utterly depressing. Even during the thaw after Stalin's death, it was still possible to get shipped across the continent to Kolyma for saying the wrong thing. The most heartbreaking thing in this book is probably when Anna, Ivan's love interest, tells Ivan about what happened during the Holodomor** in the early 1930s. The Holodomor was a state engineered famine in Ukraine that killed millions. Grossman reminds us that the camps and the prisons were not the worst of Stalin's crimes.

In all, I suppose, that this book accomplishes two things. First, I firmly believe that this book is a way for Grossman to take all the angry, guilty, and stressful emotions that were no doubt swirling around in his head and get them down on paper where he could start to deal with them. Second, it's a reminder of a time and a place and a people that are incomprehensible here and now. It is probably one of the best books I've reading about the 1950s in Russia and, yes, I have read A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

* All quotations from the 1972 hardcover Harper & Row edition.

** I didn't want to link directly to the Wikipedia article on the Holodomor without putting a warning in front of it. Be warned that this famine was a crime against humanity and reading about the victims breaks my heart. Anyway, here's the link for the curious: Holodomor.

12.13.2009

The Art of Detection, by Laurie R. King

Art of Detection
The Art of Detection
I spent most of today reading Laurie R. King's The Art of Detection, the fifth novel in her Kate Martinelli series. I've been a fan of her Holmes and Russell series for years and, to a lesser extent, of her Martinelli series. Unlike the historical mysteries of Holmes and Russell, the Martinelli series is set in modern day San Francisco. While they are not the best contemporary mysteries I've read, I do enjoy spending time with the character.

Because the reviews and the back of the book mentioned Holmes obliquely, I had high hopes for this novel. I always enjoy when authors link their series together. The highlight of this book definitely was the short story the murder victim that portrays a detective suspiciously like the Holmes of King's other series. It was so interesting, however, that it threatened to overshadow the mystery at the heart of the rest of the book. Well, not so much threatened in my case. It actually was more interesting to me.

The victim of the novel, is a Holmes nut, to the extent that the lowest two floors of his house are a reproduction of a Victorian gentleman's house, even down to having gaslights reinstalled in the building. All the suspects are part of a Sherlockian club. There are clues that turn out to be red herrings or not actually clues at all. The Maltese Falcon was a nice touch, as well as the parallels in the short story to what happened to Martinelli's victim. But when you actually get to the solution, the whodunit, it turns out to be a lot less interesting than it could have been.

I was glad to see the happy ending for Martinelli and her partner Lee at the end, but the end of the mystery felt like a cop out. I read all day, hoping to find out that the criminal behind the murder would be fiendishly clever and that what happened would have been worthy of one of Conan Doyle's stories. It wasn't, and what could have been a fantastic mystery storied turned into more of a ho-hum cozy. In the future, I'm probably going to stick to the Holmes/Russell novels. If another Martinelli novel comes out, I'll just get it from the library if it piques my interest.

Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada

I'm back. What with the non-stop writing in November sucking up most of my free time, I got a little behind on my reading. And then I chose to read a huge book right after, hence the delay in posting. Anyway, I'm back on track with my reading.

Every Man Dies Alone
Every Man Dies Alone
I'd read about Every Man Dies Alone*, by Hans Fallada, in one of the many book review magazines I read for work. Unlike the two rediscovered novels by Irene Nemirovsky, this one sounded like there was some action in it. This book is based on the lives of Otto and Elise Hempel, who started a campaign of sending out letters and postcards with anti-fascist messages on them. They got away with it for almost three years before they were caught. After the war, Fallada was recruited by a German author who'd spent most of the war in Russia. He actually had his hands on the actual Gestapo file for the couple. According to the rather brilliant afterword, Fallada wasn't really interested in writing the story, because the Hempels never really accomplished much with their campaign--just like their fictional counterparts (520**).

Be warned. Spoilers follow.

Geoff Wilkes, who wrote that afterword, goes on to draw the parallel that Fallada is writing about the "banality of good," like Arendt did for evil in Eichmann in Jerusalem (527). But even though the characters lead small lives, Fallada does a lot to show the moral dilemma of the average German. Do you support Hitler? Or do you not? If you do not, what can you go about it. This novel is set in 1940 and 1942-43. By that time, according to the author, Germany had reached a fever pitch of paranoia and denounciations, almost comparable to Russia during the Great Terror. You couldn't talk politics with anyone but trusted family members (if then). You couldn't talk about the war to anyone. Ending up in a rehab clinic or mental institution was often as dangerous as been sent to prison or the concentration camps. If you weren't the Party (the National Social Party, because all other political parties were illegal), you had few opportunities and faced suspicion from the police and other Party members. Von Stauffenberg's and the White Rose's plans was a spectacular exception to the norm. Because everyday Germans were be spied on by other everyday Germans all the time, and because no one wanted to be implicated in anything, it was extremely hard to start anything without getting caught right away. It was so much easier to just keep your head down and pay at least lip service to the regime.

What starts Anna and Otto Quangel (the fictional version of the Hempels) on their small campaign is a letter delivered by local postwoman Eva Kluge informing them that their only son has died in battle in France. Otto, a very quiet man, get the idea first. Oddly, it's not so much that his son has died as that Otto has realized that he can't sit by and say nothing anymore. His idea is to write a postcard a week, sometimes two, and leave them in office and apartment buildings all over Berlin. He imagines that people will pick them up and, out of fear of being caught with them, pass them on to new buildings to start the cycle all over. He believes that he is saying out loud what the majority of people are thinking.

Along the way, we meet a bunch of other characters by chance: Eva's estranged husband and perennial wastrel Enno; the bitter, failed criminal in the basement of the Quangel's building, Borkhausen; the apparatchiks downstairs, the Persickes; and the Quangel's erstwhile daughter-in-law, Trudel. Between an incident involving an elderly Jewish woman upstairs and the postcards, everyone gets swept into the Gestapo's net over the course of the book. Fallada has everyone play a role, no matter how small, and we stay with those characters until the end of the book or their deaths (whichever comes first). Even though, in the scheme of things, no one seems to accomplish much that anyone outside of their small circles of aquaintance notices, it feels like a big story. As events played out, I got more and more worried about the Quangels and Eva Kluge and Trudel. And when they are eventually caught, it's just heartbreaking.

The way that Fallada chose to write this story is pretty damn close to genius. Not only do the characters--in a very natural and believable way--show how ordinary Germans dealt with the ethics and morals of living in an evil regime, but they also show how--given enough scrutiny in this environment--everyone is guilty of something. Once the Gestapo starts looking, they find whatever it is that you want to hide. They can arrest just about anyone on any pretense (again, Party members are protected, as the Persicke plot line illustrates), even being "politically unreliable." In a sense, suspicion is like a virus. Everyone who is even remotely involved gets infected. People who were unlucky enough to be in the building where a card was found are infected. Once the characters are pulled in by the Gestapo, there's no way to get rid of the virus either. In fact, once they get a character in their clutches, they force them to name names and even more people are drawn into the conspiracy, whether they actually knew about it or not.

Books like this one inevitable lead you to wondering what you would have done if you'd lived in German under the Reich. It's easy to condemn ordinary Germans now, almost seventy years after the start of World War II, because we know what Hitler was really up to. What we don't know is what life was like for the people who actually lived it. Fallada's book helps fill that gap and, like any real ethical question, it makes the situation a muddy gray rather than black and white. According to the afterword, showing ordinary people dealing with major events in the world and trying to "stay decent" is a major theme in Fallada's work (513, 523-524). How do you stick to what you know is right and wrong when everything is being twisted, when the world is changing those definitions to fit its own ends? And this is why Fallada wrote about ordinary people who got sick of staying quiet, who spoke their minds, who tried to carry on their lives like they had before, and failed.

While the novel does end with the capture, trial, and deaths of the Quangels, Trudel, and her husband, Fallada did make an attempt to end the book with a note of hope:
But we don't want to end this book with death, dedicated as it is to life, invincible life, life always triumphing over humiliation and tears, over misery and death. (506)
The last chapter takes place in 1946, with a family starting to build a life as Germany gets back on its feet. A boy named Kuno is driving home in a wagon when a figure from his past--Borkhausen, who might be his biological father and who drew the boy into a scheme to track down Enno Kluge during the hunt for the postcard writer--begs him for a ride. When Borkhausen finds out who the kid is, he begs and threatens until Kuno throws him out of the wagon and threatens him to the point where Borkhausen slinks off into the woods. It's not an overly hopeful scene, but it is sympolic of Germany's attempts to move on from its terrible, terrible past.

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* Granted I don't know all that much about translating German idioms, but the full German title Jeder stirbt fuer sich allein I would translate as Everyone dies for themselves alone. Given the death row conversations the characters have, I think this translation fits better.

** From the hardback edition by Melville House. All citations come from this edition of the book.