Upon viewing a woodcut by Kathe Kollwitz titled "Hunger," actual Soviet filmmaker Roman Karmen thinks, "[T]he representation of reality can be more real than reality itself," a point of view that is infinitely and pointlessly debatable. Death in warfare becomes an opportunity to display literary sleight-of-hand: "The wheel was Poland's clock from which bullets ticked, each bullet not a moment but a moment's end for another Pole bewitched into a blackened, grimacing corpse face-down in the mud beside its scorched rifle or pram."
Alexandrov's narration, which overlaps with that of WTV in places, is "electrified" with recurring exclamation points: Oh, me, oh, my! But this phony enthusiasm is needed to offset the dullness-factor inherent in unloading seemingly unlimited truckloads of historical data. The amount of labor that went into the creation of this novel is incalculable, truly impressive. Alexandrov, a homodiegetic narrator, has access to and reports on the thoughts and feelings of the characters he discusses (the majority of who are actual historical actors)--this is the Proust problem, one Robbe-Grillet and and C. Simon were careful to avoid. In §18 of the chapter "Far and Wide My Country Stretches" Alexandrov enters into dialogue with another character and presto-bingo! a new unidentified narrator appears and, for a time, the narration becomes heterodiegetic.
Then it's revealed that Shostakovich spoke in incomplete, you know--yes, we've had a good deal of that, that point has been made, glad to get the historical basis for it. His technique for conveying the horrors of the war is to mention them in passing . . . which makes them all the more chilling, as in the parenthetical tag to this sentence: "Strangely enough, they did not place him within one of those open boxcars already crammed with Russians packed and stacked vertically--still alive, most of them (soon they'd commence eating each other.)" And a sentence from earlier lingers in mind: "Intellectuals are people whose aspirations tend to outreach their capabilities."
Of German Lieutenant-General Paulus the narrator says: "[H]e began to see war somewhat as our Führer must, which is to say not as the implemenation of preconsidered options, but as music in and of itself, pulsations of godlike creativity . . . ." Interesting phrasing. Our German narrator's view of Hitler's strategic and tactical capacity as commander in chief of the German forces is not skeptical: "With a loving smile, he [Hitler] clapped Paulus on the shoulder; and Paulus experienced what Major-General Schmidt liked to call the greatest happiness any of our contemporaries can experience--that of serving a genius."
It is essential to read this work with an intact sense of fun. An endnote to the chapter "The Last Field Marshall" reads: "All this is the flimsiest speculation, which is God's gift to historical fictioneers." He alters quotations and facts he has researched according to his sense of narrative efficacy, or his whim, which begs the question, Why have the endnotes? Though I'll confess it is enjoyable to read them.
In the chapter titled "Operation Citadel," which presents a surreal treatment of combat involving heavy use of German Tiger and Russian T-34 tanks, our German narrator i.d.'s himself as a "telephonist." People keep writing books about WWII because the impact of a story is directly related to what's at stake for the protagonist and antagonist and in this case it's civilization itself, making this an ultimate story.
Hitler referenced throughout as "the sleepwalker."
A formidable work. I may or may not finish it.
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