Friday, September 29, 2006

book of books - And Quiet Flows the Don

I am still posting reviews relating to stories of families torn apart by the Russian revolution, following last weeks reading of Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Mikhail Sholokhov was one of the writers who managed to write and survive in Stalin’s Russia and that does have a tendency to taint a bit his works but there is quality here that manages to last long after the descriptions of whites and reds have faded from the memory.

Plot summary
Very similar to War and Peace in terms of ambition and feel. It follows a Don Cossack family through trials and tribulations of family life and then the upheaval of the First World War and the start of the revolution with the first signs of uprising in 1905. Russia is at war with Japan and failing to make progress. The novel sketches the family of Gregor, the main character with his brother, sisters, mother and father working in the fields to make a living. The book ends with the revolution starting after Gregor and his brother have already served in the First World War and been decorated for bravery. But the system starts to collapse and some lives are taken, very cheaply, in the battle to assert dominance in the Don.

Is it well written?
This book won a Nobel prize and you can see why because he overlays detailed descriptions and images of peasant life in the Don with a mounting political story that is developing in the background that breaks in on the personal story. The theme of the book is that just when you think something or someone is dead then it/they come back again. So Gregor, the main character has a relationship with his neighbour and his wife and just as you think he is happily settled down he goes off with his mistress with alarming consequences.

Should it be read?
As a study of peasant life in Southern Russia and a tale of the hardship of those people it has echoes in Grapes of Wrath and once the revolution starts the novel and the relationship between the reader and the characters changes because you too are forced to pick sides and work out who you want to support because there are moments when Gregor sits on the fence leaving it up to the reader to work out their own position. The 650 pages go very quickly because it is well written. But as I said at the top the differences between Sholokhov and Pasternak are marked because one had Stalin’s favour and it does make me wonder if that detracts from the book? Even so it deserves to be read.

Leads to
This is the first volume so it naturally leads to the second, The Don flows home to the Sea, and working backwards would work well with Dr Zhivago and Speak, Memory as a run of titles on a similar theme

Version read – Penguin paperback

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