"I have written in my book what I believed, and continue to believe, to be the truth. I have written only what I have thought through, felt through and suffered through."
— Vasily Grossman, 1961, in a letter to Khrushchev upon the confiscation of the manuscripts for his WWII masterpiece, Life and Fate. The novel was considered so dangerous by Soviet officials that not only the manuscript, but also the ribbons upon which the novel was typed were confiscated. Now that’s pretty “dangerous.”
To celebrate this tremendous achievement of dissident literature, here’s the haunting opening chapter of Life and Fate, masterfully translated by Robert Chandler:
There was a low mist. You could see the glare of headlamps reflected on the high-voltage cables beside the road.
It hadn’t rained, but the ground was still wet with dew; the traffic-lights cast blurred red spots on the asphalt. You could sense the breath of the camp from miles away. Roads, railway tracks and cables all gradually converged on it. This was a world of straight lines: a grid of rectangles and parallelograms imposed on the autumn sky, on the mist and on the earth itself.
Distant sirens gave faint, long-drawn-out wails.
The road drew alongside the railway line. For a while the column of trucks carrying paper sacks of cement moved at the same speed as an endless train of freight wagons. The truck-drivers in their military greatcoats never once looked at the wagons or at the pale blurred faces inside them.
Then the fence of the camp appeared out of the mist: endless lines of wire strung between reinforced-concrete posts. The wooden barrack-huts stretched out in long broad streets. Their very uniformity was an expression of the inhuman character of this vast camp.
Among a million Russian huts you will never find two that are exactly the same. Everything that lives is unique. It is unimaginable that two people, or two briar-roses, should be identical… If you attempt to erase the peculiarities and individuality of life by violence, then life itself must suffocate.
The grey-haired engine-driver watched casually yet attentively. Concrete posts, revolving searchlights on high masts, and glass-domed towers flashed by. In the domes stood guards with mounted machine-guns. The driver winked at his mate and the locomotive gave a warning hoot. A brilliantly lit cabin passed by, then a queue of cars beside a striped level-crossing barrier and a red traffic signal.
From the distance came the hoot of an approaching train. The driver turned to his mate. ‘That’s Zucker. I can tell by the whistle. He’s already unloaded. Now he’s taking empty wagons back to Munich.’
There was a deafening roar as the two trains met. The air was torn apart, patches of grey flashed past between the wagons—and then the torn shreds of space and grey autumn light were woven together in a seamless cloth.
The driver’s mate took out a pocket-mirror and looked at his smudged cheek. With a gesture, the driver asked if he could borrow it himself.
'Honestly, comrade Apfel,' said the mate excitedly, 'if it wasn't for all this disinfecting the wagons, we'd be back home by supper-time. As it is, we'll be out till four in the morning. As though they couldn't be disinfected back at the junction!'
The old driver had heard this complaint many times before. ‘Give a good long hoot,’ he said. ‘We’re to be put straight through to the main unloading area.’