PRUSSIAN NIGHTS by Robert Conquest


A Poem
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Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of those weighty novels, has here produced in narrative verse a rather terse poem, drawn from his battle experiences in the closing days of WW II, composed in his head and memorized in his prison camp days. One understands why, once the Byelorussian offensive sweep had reached the Baltic, so many of its officers and men were sent away; they had seen the fat richness of the West: paper, good pencils, shoes, clothing, schnapps--a world where even servant girls wore shoes, very unlike Mother Russia. This is one of the preoccupations of the youngish officer who speaks. The other is the memory of the first Great War, where Russian divisions were slaughtered, chewed up, in order to divert German soldiers from the Western Front, enabling the French to win the first battle of the Marne--and save Paris. The bitterness the narrator feels about those memories enables him to condone, at least to close his eyes to, the cruelties of his own men--rape of course, and looting and burning, even such gratuitous violence as shooting a baby in his carriage: one Kraut the less. (There was one little German boy who got away, winging and dodging into the woods in spite of the fire of a dozen Russian rifles.) "Amid the violence of the crowd,/ In my heart no violence calls./ I'll not fire one stick of kindling,/ Yet I'll not quench your flaming halls./ Untouched I'll leave you. I'll be off/ Like Pilate when he washed his hands./ Between us, there is Samsonov,/ Between us many a cross there stands/ Of whitened Russian bones." Robert Conquest defends his translation in a rather lengthy and explicit afterword, and no doubt he has accomplished his task creditably. The racy ballad meter belies the seriousness of the subject; the choice was Solzhenitsyn's own, but at times it demeans the poem. Nevertheless, this is a work of great interest, because of the poet's fame, because of the difficult circumstances of its composition, and because of its inherent contradiction; these are the battlefield recollections of a pacifist.
Pub Date: June 1st, 1977
ISBN: 0374513910
Page count: 128pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1977


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