Book Review: a Russian reading of World War II

The People Immortal: " 22 individual chapters, Grossman captures the alien essence of the war..."
Book Review: a Russian reading of World War II

October 1942: Russian soldiers loading an anti-tank battery in the Northern Caucasus. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

  • The People Immortal
  • Vasily Grossman
  • MacLehose Press, £25

Translated from Russian by Elizabeth and Robert Chandler, The People Immortal is both an excellent work of fiction and an important contribution to Soviet history.

Set during the catastrophic opening months of the Second World War, we follow a Red Army regiment that wins a minor victory in eastern Belorussia, modern-day Belarus.

We get to know the characters as they try to slow the German advance and which eventually succeeds in encircling them.

Born into a Jewish family, Grossman grew up in Berdichev, in what is now Ukraine, and was one of the best-known Soviet war correspondents.

Having spent most of the war observing the front line, Grossman’s descriptions of a wartime landscape are both vivid and unexpected, as are his characters.

Upon first impression, this book is as much an examination of human behaviour, as it is a fiction that takes heavy inspiration from real events and people.

Grossman deliberates on how natural instincts must be ignored to be deemed heroic, to ignore them in the face of danger knowing you’re lighting the candle from both ends.

He acknowledges the bizarre circumstances the characters find themselves in so close to turmoil, as the country they know and love is attacked.

This book certainly packs a punch and to execute such a masterpiece, in the two months Vasily Grossman was given to write The People Immortal, is an incredible feat in itself.

In 22 individual chapters, Grossman captures the alien essence of the war and how, as human beings, it is never natural to be amongst such tragedy. Grossman writes about how the flora and fauna, the wildlife, even insects, are disrupted with one of the main characters, Ignatiev, pitying them and apologetically taking blame for the war being on their ‘territory’.

This realisation that, “this is wrong, this should never have been, this is unnatural”, is remarkably compelling.

It is important to note that this is a translated work of fiction and praise we often forget to give is due to the translators, in this case Elizabeth and Robert Chandler.

Translated literature often creates a unique experience offering an insight into unfamiliar culture and traditions from the non-English speaking world, in this case, the former Soviet Union, and the reader experiences a different take on eating, celebrations, and politics.

In Grossman’s case, the political concerns the various ideologies clashing in the Second World War, focussing on dictatorships, Fascism and Marxist-Leninist communism.

In retellings of the Second World War, in Ireland we are mostly exposed to the British and American versions as the winners get to write history so this is an opportunity to discover a Russian perspective.

The politics can become overwhelming and there is ultimately more pleasure to be had from the gorgeous writing.

Having enjoyed Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, I would still have no doubt in putting Grossman’s portrayal of war above it in an instant.

There is a strange sense of Madeline Miller’s writing in The Song of Achilles present; it is those quiet, uncomplicated movements of everyday life that mirror Grossman’s writing style.

26th November 1942: Armed with light machine guns, Soviet troops attack the German forces in the vicinity of the Red October plant in Stalingrad. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
26th November 1942: Armed with light machine guns, Soviet troops attack the German forces in the vicinity of the Red October plant in Stalingrad. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Another addition that piques interest is his inclusion of humour; while war is very serious, Grossman doesn’t forget the communal aspect.

I adored the men’s banter and joking back and forth, and how Grossman shows they are not soulless commanders who willingly send men into battle, but are human and take the loss of their men personally.

They bear the brunt of human lives lost. They are men who are moved by what others do for them.

The development of Grossman’s characters is fascinating and compelling, almost too real at times, and you might find yourself questioning if this is truly a piece of fiction.

Grossman shows they are still boys at heart and how even in war, they can make mischief.

With an accessible and simple writing style, Grossman’s book is for a large readership, with beautifully vivid descriptions that just seem to radiate from the pages, a linguistic genius shown so much throughout this book.

At one stage the men walk out onto a field of grains and Grossman dwells on the beautiful little extremities in life.

The captivating characters will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last pages and are varied, including: a brave 11-year-old son of the Comrade Commissar who must face a lot more than should be asked of him; his grandmother, Maria, who strikes a German officer and is shot; and Semion Ignatiev, a charming storyteller, who forms an unlikely brothership with Commissar Bogariov, who turns out to be an unexpectedly bold and resourceful soldier.

The book is an excellent example of what amazing art can arise out of such darkness. There are letters and interviews and explanations of references and further information about the political appended in this volume which are highly recommend reading.

Because this book was written so long ago, and, though published in several languages, yet never in English, there are accounts from people that Grossman took inspiration from and other snippets of context accumulated in the years since.

There is only so much praise I can give this book without physically placing it in your hands - it is masterful literary fiction, with wonderful communal storytelling of empathic soldiers in awful circumstances, and is highly recommended, and, beyond doubt the best war-related piece of writing, this reviewer has read to date.

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