New collection of Vasily Grossman’s short fiction and essays
Vasily Grossman (translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler)
4/5 MacLehose Press This new collection of Grossman’s short fiction and essays, with biographical notes by Robert Chandler, offers a highly personal, disturbing but philosophical look at the atrocities that took place in Soviet Russia between the ’30s and the late ’50s. By delving into the emotional, domestic aspects of his characters, Grossman ensures each story does not dissolve into despondency but retains the spirit of humanity at the edge, making the tragedy all the more poignant.
Chandler’s notes set each story in its proper context within both Grossman’s life and Russia’s history – a timeline of genocide and homicide, secrets, arrests and frayed and battling ideologies. The stories are often based around real events (‘Mama’ tells the story of an orphan girl adopted by the head of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD); ‘The Old Teacher’ was among the first pieces of fiction written about the Shoah) and Grossman’s poetic language and painfully vivid imagination mean that the reader does not feel reported to, but transported. ‘The Hell of Treblinka’ is Grossman’s essay on the Nazi death camp and was one of the first of its kind. His shifting perspectives and unflinching, incantation-like prose confront the reader with the horrifying events without indulging in descriptions of gratuitous violence or guilt-apportioning. In his fiction and non-fiction alike the issue that Grossman seems to be grappling with is how to understand, on a personal, human level, the ‘simple arithmetic of brutality’ that he witnessed throughout his life.