In praise of older books: Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman

[from The Irish Times]

I’m reading Life and Fate on a beach in Croatia. I peek from under my sunhat. Mothers and fathers, children, babies, grandparents. Lying in the sun. Swimming in the warm sea. In Moscow, Croatia and France play for the World Cup. Europe at peace.

My eyes return to the page. The Soviet Union. 1942 -1943. War. Jewish nuclear physicist Viktor Shtrum waits for the phone to ring, the door to burst open, the arrest. Stalin is unpredictable. You never know the hour.

In Stalingrad, Lieut Gen Yemenko confronts Gen Paulus. Their soldiers, men and women, die in their thousands. On the Kalmyk Steppe, Lieut Col Darensky can think of nothing but the lice. “(H)e had spread out his pants and was squashing the lice that infested them. He was moving his lips silently, evidently keeping a tally.”

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