Grossman. “Violence always destroys homes”

Vasily Grossman on the war front in Germany in 1945

The war, the home and the self. Re-read today “Life and Fate” by Vasily Grossman, who spent his youth in Berdyčiv, a Ukrainian city that was then part of the Russian Empire. From “Tracks” from April

Andrea Fazioli

I am also a character of Vasily Grossman. I found out many years ago, a week when I was home from school with a fever. I remember reading Life and destiny downstairs and interrupt me only to eat and sleep. At one point, as it was inevitable, I totally slipped between the pages of the book.

I did not wear the clothes of one of the many characters: dozens and dozens of men, women and children whose fates are intertwined during World War II. There are Russian and German soldiers, pilots, prisoners from concentration camps and gulags, scientists, wives, husbands, lovers, criminals, professors, peasants, there are even Hitler and Stalin and other historical figures. I was none of them. For an amazing effect of the narrative, I was all the characters I met, but I was always myself, a teenager who had never known either war or misery. In fact, it was above all to leave me breathless the dark power that almost from one day to the next broke the habits of a life, along with dignity, yes even humanity. As Dr. Sofia Osipovna Levintov thinks of the train that takes her to the concentration camp: “It took a few days to travel backwards from man to dirty, unhappy animal, with no name or freedom, where the road to becoming human had been. Extended for millions of years” . To be “without name or freedom” it was a condition which I could not know, but which I tried in every way to understand.

A priest in Kiev (© Aris Messinis / AFP / Getty Images)

A few days ago I picked up again Life and destiny; again, oddly enough, during a convalescence. Once again, Grossman told me about “impossible” situations, as the inside of a gas chamber and the death of the prisoners, experienced from their point of view. But side by side, I realized at the same time that I was acquiring a clearer view also on current events, on the ongoing war in Ukraine.

The author, Vasily Semënovič Grossman (1905-64), an engineer by education, then a journalist, war reporter and author, passed his youth in Berdyčiv, a Ukrainian city then part of the Russian Empire. He had finished writing Life and destiny in 1959; the novel, rejected and confiscated by the Soviet regime, fortunately arrived in Europe and was first published in Switzerland in 1980. What can a story deeply rooted in the twentieth century say about current events?

Primarily, it can teach us to reach the heart of events. I am not talking here about the geopolitical context or even about the historical roots. Life and destiny it can also help, but I leave it to the experts to assess. I recognize as a writer and read Grossman’s genius and craft: the novel, so ingrained in his time, also sheds light on our news features. The underlying conflict is as old as humanity: violence, with its ability to distance us from ourselves, to crush our “I”, is the opposite of freedom, which is precisely the recognition of our value, of our uniqueness. As Ikonnikov, a prisoner in a concentration camp, says: “Where there is violence, the pain reigns and the blood flows.” Therefore, Ikonnikov rejects any form of violence, even the executionist one: “Condemn sin and forgive the sinner,” he often repeats, quoting “a Christian writer of the fourth century.”

Violence in the novel is not only military power but also the evil that characterizes simple people. The Jewish Anna Semenova’s letter is sufficient when she tells of the persecution against the Jews: “Under my window, the janitor’s wife commented: ‘Thank God the Jews have counted days.’ But why? His son married a Jewish woman, visited them, told me about his grandchildren … ».

Two strong symbols strike me: the empty house, cleared of bombs, and the renovated, rebuilt house. Even today, when you look at the pictures that come from a country at war, the sign on the dilapidated houses is strong because it means the breakdown of everyday life: to live together, to recognize that our “I” is welcome in a home, real or ideal, is what makes us free and capable people. Violence, on the other hand, from within or without, always destroys homes.

The references are many: the phrase “scare things”, by which the Jews mean the act of emptying their dwellings before expropriation; the many refugees of all nationalities; Land many houses were bombed. Librarian Musja Borisovna captures the moment everyday life is falling into chaos: ‘The window of his room looked out onto the barbed wire fence of the ghetto. (…) The moonlight, the cadence and majestic movements of the armed divisions, the powerful black trucks, the hidden ticking of the clock, the shirt, the bra, the socks, motionless on the chair, the warm smell of the house: the ‘irreconcilable had been tuned’.

There is a character plagued by love about whom it is said: “It burned like a house. Yes, the houses burned like him: The ceiling collapses with the beams, the sideboards collapse with all the dishes they contain, the shelves with their books and pillows swirl like doves between the sparks, in the smoke … ». There is an elderly woman who does not want to leave her ruined home: “The facade of the building had remained intact, and between the open mouths of the windows Aleksandra Vladimirovna with her old presbyopic eyes saw the walls of her house, she recognized painting blue and green now faded. The floors was gone, and neither were the ceilings and stairs. The fire had left its mark on the tile roof, dug here and there of the splinters ».

But the house is also a sign of resistance: the girl who in a terrible situation “thinks of the sign on the door of her house”; the peasant woman welcoming a dying ex-prisoner in her izba; the very image of the izba used to represent the irreducibility of the ‘self’: “Russian izbe are millions, but there can be no – and there are not – two completely identical. What is alive has no copies.” Violence removes. precisely this difference, this freedom to be what we are, and in this way assimilates people into the collective idea of ​​”us” versus “enemies”. the symbol of the house is linked to hospitality, to the ability to individually distinguish the other to welcome.

The scene where Captain Novikov is interesting is he escapes the war for a moment to visit the woman he loves. While the narrator describes the dwelling in which Zenja finds herself, the narrator outlines some features of the woman’s solid and complex character: “It was a two-storey building, as if it had once been built straight, with thick walls in constant delay over present seasons.: About in the summer they retain a moist coolness and in the first cold of autumn they continue to retain a dusty and suffocating heat. “Finally, the house of the old Aleksandra Vladimirovna is also ready to rediscover an identity:” It was still dark, it was cold, but in in a very short time the doors and windows would open and that house would come to life again, filled with laughter and weeping of children, the hurried steps of God by a woman and those determined by the landlord ».

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There is no difference between one war and another, between one prison camp and another, between Nazi and Soviet hatred. It is always about breaking lives and destroying homes, regardless of individuals, because behind every offensive war there is a totalitarian thinking. But fortunately »the innate desire for freedom cannot be amputated; it can be suffocated but not destroyed. Totalitarianism cannot do without violence. If he gave it up, he would cease to exist. The basis of totalitarianism is violence: irritated, eternal, infinite, direct or disguised. Man never voluntarily renounces freedom. And this conclusion is the beacon of our time, a beacon for our future. “

What role does reading or rereading play in all this? Life and destiny? It is the novel itself that answers: “Only when he recognizes in others what he has already grasped in himself does man taste the joy of freedom and goodness”. In other words, it is a matter of finding the peace in oneself that one desires for others. It is not a spontaneous process: This house, like all others, requires effort, patience and, above all, the ability to work together to be built.

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