Category: World War II Page 1 of 3

Vasily Grossman: Народ бессмертен (The People Immortal; No Beautiful Nights)

The latest addition to my website is Vasily Grossman‘s Народ бессмертен (The People Immortal; No Beautiful Nights) . The book had been translated into English in 1945 but this version uses the original manuscript, some of which was censored, often by Grossman himself. It is an account of the relatively early period of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, in which the Germans ruthlessly drive forward, forcing the Soviets back. We follow one troop, in particular their Marxist expert commissar, a womanising soldier who is always willing to undertake any task assigned to him and various commanders. Grossman shows that the Germans are more efficient and organised than the Russians. (Stalin had claimed that the Germans had better equipment which was not true.) We see the bombing of Gomel, almost completely destroyed. We also see the effect of Stalin’s Order No. 270 which forbade Soviet troops from surrendering or retreating on pain of death and required them to fight to the death. The troop we are following is encircled, as many Soviet troops were and we see how they deal with it. Grossman is both an excellent reporter and an excellent novelist and this is another first-class work from him.

Georges Magnane: Où l’herbe ne pousse plus (Where the Grass No Longer Grows)

The latest addition to my website is Où l’herbe ne pousse plus (Where the Grass No Longer Grows). The novel is a fictionalised account of a historical event – the massacre of a643 inhabitants of a French village in 1944. Magnane has created a fictional village, Verrièges, and we follow the events there. The French villagers are shown to be ordinary people, making their living primarily from farming. They have been relatively spared the worst of the war, when an SS troop, heading towards Normandy to help repulse the Allies after D-Day, hears that weapons have been hidden in the village. When they cannot find them, they massacre the entire village. The Germans are shown to be vicious and evil, though the massacre is prompted by one particular vicious Nazi. It is very skilfully done as Magnane compares the evil Nazis with the ordinary, but not always saintly French.

Roy Jacobsen: Grenser (Borders)

Yes, this novel is about borders, particularly national ones but also borders between people. Apart from a very large section involving the Battle of Stalingrad, much of this novel is set around the Luxembourg-Belgum-German border. We start with the Ardennes Offensive (aka the Battle of the Bulge) when a soldier serving in the US army (though he may be Canadian) is rescued by a local woman. They hide out but he goes to look for his regiment and never returns, leaving her pregnant. Robert, the son, and Maria , the mother, are close to various people whose stories we hear, including, in particular, Léon, who ends up fighting (unwillingly) for the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge and Markus, who ends up fighting for the Germans at the Battle of Stalingrad and seemingly has a key influence on the course of the battle. He is blinded but when he recovers, tells no-one, not even his wife, except for Robert.

In both battles, borders are crossed though the key border we are concerned with is on the River Our between Germany and Luxembourg and this small and insignificant crossing will play a certain role well before the war, during the war and after the war. We follow several other stories, the issue of people fighting for the wrong side, the military mistakes made by generals and by Hitler and even the story of a knife thrower and William of Orange. Jacobsen tells a wonderful set of stories but it all comes down to borders – between people and between countries.

Per Petterson: Ut og stjæle hester (Out Stealing Horses)

The latest addition to my website is Per Petterson‘s Ut og stjæle hester (Out Stealing Horses).

Trond Sander is sixty-seven. Within the space of a month , his second wife is killed in a car crash, in which he is injured, and his sister dies of cancer. He decides that it is time to retire and buys a rundown house in the north of Norway, not far from the Swedish border. He meets his neighbour, Lars, and both men soon realise they knew each other as children. When Trond was fifteen, in 1948, he and his father would come to a remote cabin and do man things while his mother and sister stayed at home in Oslo. He had a friend Jon, a local boy of his age and one day the two boys go out stealing horses, in fact just riding the horses of the local landowner. Only later does he learn that the day before, his younger brother, Lars, had taken Jon’s loaded rifle and shot and killed Odd, his twin brother. Lars is, of course, the the Lars that the older Trond meets.

We learn more about what happened then but also what happened before. It seems Trond’s unnamed father, was active in the resistance during the war, though his family knew little about it, and became close to the mother of Jon and Lars. Trond gradually learns more from his father’s friend Franz. However that holiday was the last time he saw either Jon or his father, who disappeared, leaving only a few krone for his family. Much of the book is Trond’s relationship with his father that summer and how he struggles to cope in his old age, trying to put his life back together. There are few fireworks but it is a beautifully told tale.

Sigurd Hoel: Møte ved Milepelen (Meeting at the Milestone)

The latest addition to my website is Sigurd Hoel‘s Møte ved Milepelen (Meeting at the Milestone). Published only two years after World War II, this book had considerable impact in Norway, as it deals with the issue of Norwegian collaboration with the Nazis. Our unnamed narrator has provided a safe house for the Resistance and learns from one man he is sheltering that a man he had known as a student is now living in a rural village and is unhappy in his life but has joined the Nazi party. Our narrator will later examine why several people he knew had become collaborators with the Nazis but he is also sent to the village to find out why the Nazis seem to know what the Resistance is up to. Is there a spy? If so, who and why? He gets involved with various people from his past but, at the same time, ends up not really knowing why these people collaborated and, as he says, not finding the pattern in my own life. The book deservedly had considerable success both in Norway and abroad when published.

Jana Bodnárová: Náhrdelník/Obojok (Necklace/Choker)

The latest addition to my website is Jana Bodnárová‘s Náhrdelník/Obojok (Necklace/Choker). This novel tells the stories of two Slovak women – Sara and Iboja – who meet in their hometown after Slovak independence in the late twentieth century. Their stories and the stories of their families are the stories of Slovakia as we follow them and their families from the 1930s to the post-independence era. Both came from well-to-do families but suffered from the Holocaust, the war, exile (Sara is in Germany, Iboja’s mother and father went to France while she stayed behind with her grandparents). Both families suffered bitterly under communism with Sara’s father, a painter whose paintings were not approved, going to an early grave and Iboja’s grandfather being arrested for being a bourgeois parasite. Bodnárová shows how much the area has lost, something that can never be regained, while the two women – aged fifty-five and seventy respectively – can only look back with sadness.

Willem Frederik Hermans: Herinneringen van een engelbewaarder (A Guardian Angel Recalls)

The latest addition to my website is Willem Frederik Hermans Hermans: Herinneringen van een engelbewaarder (A Guardian Angel Recalls). Our hero is Bert Alberegt, a Dutch state prosecutor. In a hurry to get to a trial, he takes a short cut going the wrong way down a one way road and accidentally kills a young girl. He hides the body, and spends the rest of the book wondering whether he will be found out. However, he has a guardian angel who keeps telling him to do the right thing but the Devil is also giving his point of view. These two spend the book advising Bert what to do and what not to do which gives a flippant edge to a serious book. Before killing the girl, Bert had put his girlfriend – a German Jew and Communist – on a ship to England and he is eager to join her but cannot find a way to do so. Things get more complicated when the Nazis invade the Netherlands – it is May 1940 – and Bert barely avoids being killed but is now more eager than ever to flee to England, particularly as it turns out that his best friend has been helping the family of the dead girl. Hermans cleverly mixes the very serious – the Nazi invasion and the death of the girl – with the less serious (the guardian angel vs the Devil) and manages it superbly.

Maurizio Maggiani: Il romanzo della nazione [The Novel of the Nation]

The latest addition to my website is Maurizio Maggiani‘s Il romanzo della nazione [The Novel of the Nation]. Despite its somewhat arrogant title, it is, in fact, primarily the story of the author’s family and, particularly his father, a man who fought in World War II, became a Communist, is austere and never shows any affection – indeed barely even talks to his wife and son. The key event for his son is the death of his father, though we learn a lot more about the father (a secret poet!) as well and other family members as well as about father-son relations, not showing affection, a life well lived, then and now, old age and its problems and, of course, death. The book has not been translated into any other language and, I suspect, may not be, as it is a mishmash and very Italian.

Miljenko Jergović: Rod (Kin)

The latest addition to my website is Miljenko Jergović‘s Rod (Kin). This is an 800-page family novel, as the author calls it, but do not let that put you off. It is essentially the stories (mini-novels) of, primarily, his mother’s family, going back to the beginning of the twentieth century but also of his extended family, friends and neighbours, set over a hundred years, ending in 2012 with his mother’s death. We cover a large range of languages, ethnic groups, a few religions, plenty of divergent political views, different overlords and, of course, a few wars. The author tells his story up to the death of his mother in 2012 (he had moved to Zagreb, she was still in Sarajevo). The key event in her life was the death of her brother, Mladen, who died when she was seventeen months old, killed while fighting for the Germans. Her mother never forgave her for living while Mladen died and she, too, was far from a perfect mother. Above all, however, Jergović tells us a host of mini-novels, some funny, some sad, some involving famous people, but many involving ordinary people but all fascinating, colourful and highly imaginative.

Gabriela Adameșteanu: Dimineață pierdută (Wasted Morning)

The latest addition to my website is Gabriela Adameșteanu‘s Dimineață pierdută (Wasted Morning). The novel gives a panorama of Romania and its sufferings from the beginning of World War I to 1975. Much of what happens we see through the eyes of the seventy-year old Vica Delcă, who has had a hard life. Her father went off to fight in World War I and, while he was away, her mother died, leaving the eleven-year old Vica to bring up her siblings. Things improved briefly when she was able to open a shop, with no help from her useless husband, but that was closed by the Communists twenty years ago and now she struggles on a meagre pension and help from friends, with useless husband stuck in front of the TV. In her morning she goes to visit her sister-in-law (widow of Vica’s favourite brother) and her friend Ivona Ioaniu, whose family mirror the changes in Romania, from a well-to-do French-speaking bourgeois family to Ivona struggling on her own with an unfaithful husband in a big house. Adameșteanu shows the hardships many Romanians have endured over the years. It was big success in Romania.

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