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11/16/2010 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Kirkus Star


The Second Knot of the Red Wheel

by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-374-22314-9
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

This vast, inordinately ambitious follow-up to Solzhenitsyn's long-aborning magnum opus The Red Wheel (whose first volume August 1914 appeared in English translation in 1972!), published in Russia in 1993, will alternately frustrate, exhaust, and generously reward readers willing to grapple with it. In a polyphonic narrative that sweeps from remote eastern villages to the Western Front of WWI, where grenadiers nervously await the resumption of stalled hostilities, Solzhenitsyn scrupulously juxtaposes the impersonal march of historical events against intimate views of representative individual lives caught up in their momentum. As the European war grinds on, depleting resources and alienating ordinary citizens from Russia's indifferent royal family (Tsar Nikolai II and his "Empress" Aleksandra) and the ineffectual royalist parliament ("Duma"), both the militant Constitutional Democratic Party ("Kadets") and the more narrowly nationalist Bolsheviks plot the destruction of the monarchy. Regimental commander Giorgi Vorotyntsev (a pivotal character in August 1914) sinks into increasing despair over his country's disastrous involvement in an unwinnable war (" . . . people must be made to realize that all things, even Russia, have limits"), as his "betrayal" of his trusting wife foreshadows the overthrow of the Tsar. Other varying attitudes toward military intervention, domestic economic policy, the treatment of Russia's Jews, and several more equally "knotty" topics are embodied in such vividly drawn characters as "liberal"-thinking artillery officer "Sanya" Lazhenitsyn; soldier Blagodarev (whose return home occasions an impassioned depiction of his impoverished village); Cossack-born firebrand journalist Fyodor Kovynev (a caricature of Soviet-approved novelist Mikhail Sholokhov), and the wily Swiss "millionaire revolutionary" Parvus—who conspires with "Lenin in Zurich" (the title under which this long section was published separately in 1976). Inevitably, all this is impressive—even despite the interminable conversations that these and other passionately engaged characters frequently indulge in. If Nobel laureate Solzhenitsyn is a great writer, it's in the same way that Dreiser and Zola are great writers. The Red Wheel sequence is unlike anything else in contemporary fiction (or, indeed, since its obvious inspiration: Tolstoy's War and Peace). Therefore, be warned. But do attempt it.