Sunday, October 01, 2006

book of books – The Don flows home to the sea

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’s second volume about Don Cossacks is faster paced than the first as everything comes to a head.

Plot summary
You pick up the story with the same characters and the main family and Gregor at the centre of the novel. The story is very much about how the Cossacks, and by extension other peasants, were caught between the Reds and the Whites. The struggles to pick the winning side sees the Cossack community switch sides and ultimately make their position untenable because they are distrusted by both sides in the civil war. At a micro level the arrival of the Reds gives those who are on the fringes of the current society the chance to challenge it and in the end it makes the civil war a series of personal vendettas. Gregor’s family falls apart and he goes from Whites to Reds then into banditry and in the end he returns to face a staunch communist enemy who vows to kill him but he would rather risk that and see his children once more than wander the countryside for ever

Is it well written?
No doubt what appealed to Stalin was the way the Cossacks in some passages are cast as devious side-switchers who just look out for their own survival but there are more subtle pictures painted of Reds leaving you with the impression they are bitter, jealous outsiders who are using the revolution as a chance for personal revenge. So nobody really comes out of it that well. What you are constantly reminded of is the importance of the countryside and the fact that for the peasants the First World War and then the civil war just took them away from the land, somewhere they were masters of their own crops and homesteads, into a world they could never succeed in.

Should it be read?
As I said with the first volume, 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. In the end although Gregor is a flawed hero he asks the question of the reader: “what would you do?” Books about the revolution should do that because characters were not dealing with reasonable situations and so the reactions should not be predictable.

Leads to
This works well with Dr Zhivago and Speak, Memory as a run of titles on a similar theme. On a non-fiction front there are plenty of books about the revolution but only a few about the civil war but one of those that does exist is Red Victory by Bruce Lincoln.

Version read – Penguin paperback

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