Word of this problematic, non-dissident Soviet novel preceded its publication in the West: it is one of the few, if not the...



Word of this problematic, non-dissident Soviet novel preceded its publication in the West: it is one of the few, if not the first of, modern Russian novels to stress the familiar normalness of Russian/Jewish life in the post-Revolutionary period; and it deals with the extraordinary--the singular--punishment which this one people suffered at the hands of the invading Germans. The Jewish (but symbolically named) Ivanovsky family--gentle, Swiss-born father Yakov, fiery mother Rachel, indomitable grandfather Rakhlenko, and a whole large clan issued thereof--swims along the currents of the Revolution without too great a splash. Through the NEP semi-capitalist era and the various Five-Year-Plans, this clan of lower-middle-class shoemakers muddles. And, using an intently spoken (haimish) style, Rybakov paints a picture of excited, complex, charitable people-people who will be totally undone in the book's last quarter by unspeakable German atrocity: mass graves, crucifixion, medieval pole-axings. But the Jews of this small Ukrainian town do not all go down in silence. To the contrary, half or more of the Ivanovskys become partisans: ""You hear those shots? That's your children dying to save you! You're not slaves anymore, you're free, you're going to revenge the blood of your families and friends, you're going to make those monsters pay for your suffering. . . ."" The propaganda intent here--for the Soviet home audience--is clear and worthy: to correct the widespread (if tacit) Soviet idea that Jews were never good Soviet citizens, that when their deaths came, they went to them meekly or at least without valor. Yet, like most corrective propaganda, this novel over-compensates and hedges; by making these Jews into valiant partisans, isn't Rybakov buying these Jews' way into Soviet grace with brave good works? Isn't he making Jews acceptable only by making them super-Russians? (A girl, crucified by the sadistic Nazi commandant in the village square, spends her last breath in whispered song: ""Maybe a Jewish song, or a Ukrainian or Russian song, or perhaps the 'Internationale,' the hymn of our youth and our hopes."") True, the in situ worthiness of Rybakov's book outstrips its rather crude, slow narrative equipment; but it never quite dispels, for a Western reader, the Russian tendency to replace one myth with another not unlike it. A disturbing book, then, if only for the moral gray areas it creeps through--and sure to provoke vigorous debate and discussion.

Pub Date: April 1, 1981


Page Count: -

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1981

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