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"Not under foreign skies, Nor under foreign wings protected
on 7 May 2010
I shared all this with my own people
There, where misfortune had abandoned us."
Anna Akhmatova's Requiem
If Life and Fate may rightfully be seen as Vasily Grossman's masterpiece, his Everything Flows may rightfully be seen as his testament, a requiem if you will not only for his own life but for the lives of those who lived in his time and place.
"Everything Flows" tells a simple, yet emotionally deep and politically nuanced tale. The story begins with the 1957 return to Moscow of Ivan Grigoryevich after 30 years of forced labor in the Gulag. 1957 marked the year, following Khrushchev's denunciation of the excesses of Stalin, in which the tide of prisoners returning from the Gulag reached its peak. He arrives at the Moscow flat of his cousin Nikolay. Nikolay, a scientist with less than stellar skills, has reached some measure of success at the laboratory through dint of being a survivor. The meeting in the flat is entirely unsatisfactory for both parties. Grossman paints a vivid picture of Nikolay, more than a bit jealous that Ivan's light had always shone brighter than his own prior to Ivan's arrest. Nikolay suffers from the guilt of one who was not arrested and who is painfully aware of the choices he made to keep from being arrested. It seems clear that Ivan represents a mirror into which Nikolay can see only his own hollow reflection.
Ivan leaves Moscow for his old city of Leningrad, the place where he was first arrested in 1927. By chance, he runs into the person, Pinegin, whose denunciation placed him in jail in the first place. Once again, Ivan is a mirror and Pinegin is horrified at what he is faced with, what he has buried for thirty years. Ironically, and to great effect, we see Pinegin's horror recede once he settles down to a sumptuous lunch at a restaurant reserved for foreigners and party officials. Ivan does not know about the denunciation and Grossman here embarks on a discourse on the different types and forms of denunciation available to the Soviet citizen. It is a remarkable discourse that shows how many different ways there are to participate in a purge and how many ways there are to legitimize ones participation and/or acquiescence.
From Leningrad Ivan travels to a southern industrial city where he finds work and eventually finds a deep and satisfying love in the person of his landlady Anna. The centerpiece of that relationship is the brutal honesty involved; Anna spends a night detailing her role in the pointless, needless famine that swept the Ukraine in 1932-1933. It is an account made even more chilling by the straightforward, confessional nature of its telling. But it is also redemptive and shines a light on what might be called Grossman's vision that love and freedom are two goals, not mutually exclusive, that an honest accounting of our lives forms the essence of our shared humanity.
The above summary does not do justice to the power of Grossman's prose or to the literary and political importance of the work. Since the death of Stalin, the Soviet line had remained relatively firm - Stalin's excesses were the product of a disturbed mind that represented a horrible deviation from the theory and principles of Leninism. The USSR's best path was the one that returned it to the path created by Lenin. Khrushchev first enunciated this line. Even Gorbachev's perestroika was based on the theory that a return to first-principles, i.e. Leninism, would save the USSR from destruction.
Grossman, prophetically, did not buy into this line and Everything Flows'last chapters are notable for a remarkable attack not only on Stalin but on Lenin and Lenin's anti-democratic tendencies that had more in common with Ivan the Terrible than the principles of revolutionary democracy. "All the triumphs of Party and State were bound up with the name of Lenin. But all the cruelty inflicted on the nation also lay - tragically - on Lenin's shoulders." Grossman may have been the first to make this leap and he paid the price for making that leap. (This involves the suppression of his Life & Fate and Everything Flows.) Grossman's explicit claim that Stalin was not a deviationist from Leninism but its natural-born progeny was profoundly subversive and there is no doubt in my mind that it was this difference that explains why, under Khruschev's 'thaw', that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was publishe while Life and Fate and Everything Flows was banned.
Despite the horrors set out, quietly and without excess rhetoric, Grossman returns to a somewhat optimistic vision of mans search for freedom: "No matter how mighty the empire, all this is only mist and fog and, as such, will be blown away. Only one true force remains; only one true force continues to evolve and live; and this force is liberty. To a man, to live means to be free."
Robert Chandler's translation of Everything Flows is exquisite. He brings the same clarity and emotional investment in Grossman's work that he brought to his prize-winning translations of Platonov and Hamid Ismailov's The Railway. In short, Everything Flows is a treasure and I cannot recommend this book highly enough.