Friday, March 21, 2008
book review: The Road to Calvary
Sadly whenever you have the surname and the country of birth that Alexei Tolstoy does you are always going to be compared to the great Russian writer sharing that surname.
But this is a book in three parts that cannot just be compared to War & Peace. It also chimes in with other works that looked at the impact of the civil war on Russians at different levels of society. It reminds you of War & Peace because of the grand descriptions of the movement of the armies of initially Russia and Germany and then Red versus White.
But it also reminds you of The River follows to the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov and Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. Just like those stories there are the same disruptive and life-changing forces at work as the state collapses into bitter war. Those at all levels of society have to be careful just who they choose to support.
But the key to understanding this epic is to put it in the context of when it was being written. Completed in 1944 when the Russians had started to turn the tide against Hitler this is a morale boosting tale, a reminder of Stalin’s military greatness (that point will be returned to) and a history lesson on how much blood was split to produce the Communist state in the first place. The reward for Tolstoy was the Stalin prize but for the reader it is an occasionally dangerous rewriting of history. Something you never felt that was happening in War & Peace.
The first part describes the lives of two sisters Dasha and Katia. The youngest Dasha lives with her sister and brother-in-law and is studying as well as branching out into society for the first time. She destroys her sister’s world when she discovers that Katia has had an affair with a well-known Casanova and forces her to tell her husband. Quickly stability is lost and Katia flees to Paris and Dasha is eventually forced home to her father. But before she goes she falls in love with Telegin who informs is the one to inform her and her brother-in-law, who is staying in the Crimea, that war has started and Katia, is now cut off from them on the other side of the fighting. Katie’s husband joins up and is killed, a deserter needlessly murders the Casanova and the generation of luxurious debaters starts to find reality far more uncomfortable than a smoking room argument. Katia falls in love with Roshchin who is also fighting but there position remains sketchy as the story moves on.
In part two the focus is the year 1918 and the story picks up as the revolution is about to begin and follows the breakdown of the front and the difficulty of the four characters to settle. Telegin and Dasha find themselves in a cold harsh flat having watched their new born die and their relationships starts to fall apart and Telegin falls into the Red Army believing he has nothing left at home. Meanwhile Katia and Roshchin go in a different direction and he joins the Whites. The sister’s father, a provincial doctor, is used as an example of the opportunism many felt and tries to become part of a breakaway government in Samaria. He is quite happy to get the police to hand out retribution to those that have wronged him. Meanwhile in a similar fashion to Telegin and Dasha the strain of civil war leads Roshchin to leave Katia and go off to the killing fields leaving the two sisters left wandering Russia looking for comfort in a comfortless society.
The final part, A Bleak Morning, starts to bring the two strands together and for a convenient end to the story Roshchin decides he has had enough of fighting for those who are only looking to restore their own power and privileges. He ends up with the Reds but his main motivation is to find Katia who has been told he is dead. She ends up almost being raped by his old man at arms from the war but manages to fend him off and become a village teacher. Roshchin traces her down but too late she has gone. Meanwhile Telegin has become a loyal Red fighter and is reunited with Dasha in a field hospital where she is working as a nurse. Their love has never gone but it takes time to have the confidence to blossom again. In the final acts of the book the Whites are mounting their last desperate attempt to take Moscow and the two sisters find themselves back at the flat where is tall started. Roshchin is reunited in a moving scene with Katia and the foursome – once would-be aristocrats – are left in love and model Red fighters prepared to defend the city against the White hordes.
The story weaves this way and that and although you know that characters will end up reunited there is a skill to the way in which those moments take place. There is one great scene where Telegin has gone through enemy lines to deliver a message and is sitting in a station next to Roshchin and the recognition is brief but the later decides to spare the formers life.
The problem is that unlike War & peace the balance is wrong here with too much political information that is towards the end just blatant cheerleading for Stalin. The characters sometimes feel as if they are being forgotten and then simply stuck into a scene to reintroduce them. In War & Peace the history was deep but it never felt dull, which it can do here.
This reminds you of one of those black and white films that were made to keep the war spirit high. No one went in watching them expecting for anything other than drum beating patriotic fervour and this has to be seen in that context. When this was being written Russia was bleeding white with losses that are staggering and if this book helped keep some people going and reminded them of why they were fighting then it did its job. Clearly without that job to do today it fails to have the same impact.
Version read – Hutchinson International Authors hardback