Book Review: The Road by Vasily Grossman

Given American popular literature today, perhaps a person first seeing Vasily Grossman’s The Road on the bookshelves could be excused if they first wonder if it is vampire or zombie-laden mashup of Cormac McCarthy’s award-winning novel of the same name. Yet readers who actually pick up the book and explore it will discern that this collection of short stories, journalism and essays can take English-speaking readers along the road of an entirely different national experience and culture.

Grossman holds a place in Russian journalism and literature unlike that of any American writer. Despite the fact it was seized by the KGB and suppressed in the Soviet Union until after his death, the Ukrainian native’s epic World War II novel, Life and Fate led to comparisons to Leo Tolstoy and War and Peace. Grossman’s status as a reporter during World War II might arguably be compared to that of Ernie Pyle in the United States. And the short stories in The Road plainly have echoes of Anton Chekhov and Grossman’s contemporary, Isaak Babel. In trying to capture Grossman with his shorter works, Robert Chandler, who edited the collection and translated the material with his wife and Olga Mukovnikova, breaks them down to writings from before, during and after World War II.

The book opens with “In the Town of Berdichev,” a short story based in the town in which he was born. Written in 1934, the story of a female commissar during the 1919-1921 Polish-Soviet war who is billeted with a local family to give birth is indicative of Grossman’s style and approach. The focus is on people and place while recognizing that neither has real context absent the recent and current events that have impacted both them and their society. One of Grossman’s most popular stories, it also served as the basis for Commissar, a film made in the Soviet Union in 1967 but suppressed until 1988 and the era of perestroika.

As with all Soviet citizens, Grossman’s life and career path were interrupted by World War II. He became a reporter for the army newspaper Red Star and ended up covering many of the most significant moments of the war. Grossman was in Stalingrad. He was one of the first reporters to enter the Treblinka death camp. He covered the fall of Berlin. Those experiences work their way into his short stories and essays. Coming in the midst of the war, the 1942 short story “The Old Man” has a propagandistic bent in looking at the life of villagers during the German invasion of Russia. “The Old Teacher,” meanwhile, not only does the same but is a story that directly takes on the massacre of Jews during the war.

Yet the true impact of the war is seen in the two non-fiction pieces in this section. “The Hell of Treblinka,” published in late 1944, was one of the first articles written in any language about the Nazi death camps. It was, in fact, translated and used in the Nuremberg trials after the war. Although later investigation and research would show that some of Grossman wrote was erroneous, it remains a compelling account of coming face to face with virtually unimaginable horror. In detailing the “conveyor-belt” approach toward the processing and murder of thousands, Grossman writes:

Astonishingly, the brute beasts were able to make use of everything. Leather, paper, cloth — everything of use to man was of use to these beasts. It was only the most precious valuable in the world — human life — that they trampled beneath their boots.

More than a decade later, the mental images remained. In 1955, Grossman wrote “The Sistine Madonna,” an essay based on a Madonna by Raphael he saw while on display in Moscow. To him, the Madonna becomes not only a mother and child at the Treblinka gas chambers, she is present for the Ukrainian famines brought about by the Soviet farm collectivization and Stalin’s Great Purges of the late 1930, a mother who must live and raise a child in “a time when people led wolfish lives and wolves lived like people.” Coming in the mid-1950s, that essay also hints at Grossman’s change in status. As a reporter, he was a leading beacon for the Soviet state. But Grossman becomes disenchanted with the Soviet cause, something his writing begins to reflect. He begins to slide into disfavor and, ultimately, his novels face not only resistance but outright suppression.

Still, Grossman continued to write about and view life through the prism of recent history. For example, “Mama” is based on the true story of a girl adopted from an orphanage by a leading figure of Stalin’s security police who ends up back in the orphanage when her parents are swept up in one of Stalin’s purges. Likewise, while “Living Space” is but two and a half pages, it tells the status of those released from Stalin’s gulag after his death in a way perhaps nothing else can.

There’s also a somewhat different Grossman in these later stories. The title story looks at the struggle, pain and suffering of war through the eyes and philosophical musings of mule pulling a munitions cart. “The Dog” is about the relationship between a mutt called Pestrushka, the first living creature to be launched into space and return, and the Soviet scientist in charge of the mission. Although markedly different from Grossman’s early work, they still explore the human condition in the context of events that seem beyond our control.

The New York Review Books Classics and Chandler have done a wonderful job of bringing Life and Fate and Grossman’s last novel, Everything Flows, to American readers over the last four years. The Road is a more than worthy addition to that effort.

The terrible question has to be asked: “Cain, where are they? Where are the people you brought here?”

“The Hell of Treblinka,” Vasily Grossman, The Road

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