It was with trepidation that I picked this up. As I wrote in my review, Vasily Grossman’s Life & Fate is the only book I have ever snapped shut, not out of boredom or irritation or a desire to read something else, but out of fear, a fear of what I would be exposed to and how it would affect me. More than once – as I carried it around with me during the day, fitting in a few pages here and there – I made a fool of myself in public, especially at work, during breaks, sitting there damp about the eyes, with a pained expression on my face, and a lower lip starting to tremble. I had visions, as I came to read Everything Flows, of being solemnly escorted out of the building, a broken man, my head resting on the ample bosom of a stout motherly woman…’what’s wrong with him?’ my colleagues will ask her. ‘I have no idea! He was just reading a book.’
As one would expect of a book that only just breaches 200 pages, Everything Flows is much narrower in focus [in terms of its basic storyline], and less epic and panoramic, than Grossman’s masterpiece; it was, moreover, unfinished at the time of the author’s death, which perhaps accounts for how episodic it is. The man tying these episodes together is Ivan Grigoryevich, who has just been released from prison [after a total of 29 years] following the death of Joseph Stalin. The passing of Uncle Joe is significant, because it led to the overturning of many unsound convictions – including, in this instance, Ivan’s – and this, this acceptance by the State that people had been locked up, and murdered, on trumped up charges, meant that ordinary Russians had some uncomfortable truths to confront, not only about how their government had behaved but in terms of their own guilt or culpability also.
“The sea was not freedom; it was a likeness of freedom, a symbol of freedom…How splendid freedom must be if a mere likeness of it, a mere reminder of it, is enough to fill a man with happiness.”
What is most striking about Ivan is that, although he is so central to the plot, he is, as a character, almost non-existent. He is described as a once sensitive, timid and shy child, and, despite his experiences in labour camps, he has maintained a reserved bearing, calmness and politeness, so much so that other characters think him odd, or naïve, or simply stupid. Much like Prince Myshkin, in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, it is through this meek man, through their interactions with him, that others reveal their baser tendencies, or weaknesses or flaws. Take his cousin, Nikolay, a scientist who Ivan first visits upon his release. Nikolay has a guilty conscience, for he had not been denounced or arrested; he had, in fact, prospered under Stalin. He could not be said to have been entirely in favour of what went down, in fact he was much troubled by what happened to Jews and other prominent intellectuals, but he didn’t openly oppose it either; he didn’t speak out when they were relieved of their posts, when they were ostracised, etc.
[Workers in a Soviet Gulag]
Throughout the opening stages of the book Grossman explores complicity in its different forms. He suggests that Nikolay was complicit in his inaction, in his reluctance to question the Party line, but most of all in his attempts to justify himself, or lie to himself, in order to have some peace of mind. It is a familiar story that those caught up in such large-scale abuses of power find it difficult to believe, or accept, what is actually happening; they doubt what they see or make excuses for it, because the truth is so awful, and, if accepted, the truth of things – that entirely innocent people are being systematically brutalised and murdered – necessitates action – because only a bad person could do nothing in the face of such horror – which is the last thing that most people want; they do not want to have to fight or oppose.
If challenged, those guilty of the complicity of inaction are likely to argue that they are but one man, so what can or could they do or have done? They also abdicate responsibility to the State or to authority. ‘It was not I, it was them; I trusted them to do the right thing…and so when they told me that such-and-such was guilty of a crime I believed them.’ I see this kind of passivity, this passing on of responsibility in the face of disgraceful authoritarian action, this moral weakness, all the time. How many times have you heard the phrase ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ applied to criminal cases? The idea is that if someone is accused of something there must be a reason for it, even if we cannot see it ourselves. It isn’t that people really believe the State is infallible, it is simply that it is easier to think so, to tell yourself so.
“The criminals had, after all, confessed during the trials[…]they had been questioned in public by a man with a university degree[…]there had been no doubt about their guilt, not a shadow of a doubt.”
After leaving Nikolay’s house, Ivan crosses paths with Pinegin, who is the man responsible for denouncing him. Pinegin worries that Ivan knows that it was him, but assures himself that he is imagining it. Here the emphasis is not on what people will allow to happen, what they passively sanction, but what ordinary human beings are actually capable of. I wrote in my review of Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies & Gentlemen that we comfort ourselves with the thought that we would never actively participate in mass oppression but normal people did and do. Grossman explores in detail why that is the case. Why do ordinary people condemn or murder for their governments? Are they evil? No, unfortunately not. Evil as a concept is, I’m afraid, simply another comfort blanket.
Some participate in order to get ahead, in order to prosper. If you help to oppress another group, not only can you take what is theirs, but there is less competition for what is not, for jobs, etc. There is also the pleasant feeling of being useful to the State, of being valued by the State. People like to be praised, they like to think that they are important or necessary. In Russia at the time, people wanted to serve Stalin, they admired him, loved him even. In terms of Pinegin, he denounced Ivan not because he hated him, but because that is what the State asked of him; he was, Grossman suggests, simply following orders or doing his duty. It isn’t, one could argue, for the common man to make these kinds of decisions, about what is right and wrong and fair or unfair, that is the responsibility of the State.* For me, there is an interesting subtext to all this, which is that morality is changeable, is malleable, and so if a State or an authority decide that someone is guilty, then they become guilty. It does not matter if another authority would declare them innocent. Therefore, those who participated in the functioning and application of that authority were also innocent, were in fact in the right, because they were behaving in accordance with the laws, rules and culture of their society.
Most of what I have discussed so far is found in the first fifty or so pages. For me, this was the strongest section of the book. Beyond those first fifty pages the storyline disappears somewhat, and Ivan gets lost among a series of [admittedly, very engaging] essays, ranging from the nature of freedom and hope, to collectivisation and a number of chapters dedicated to understanding Lenin and his role in what followed him. Therefore, as a novel, as a work of fiction, Everything Flows is a bit of a mess, is, in all honesty, not successful at all. Life & Fate also includes philosophical essays but they ride alongside a well-crafted narrative, are fully integrated into the text. This is not, however, too serious a criticism, especially when one remembers that the book was unfinished at the time of Grossman’s death; one assumes that, if he had had more time, he might have developed Ivan’s story so that it would not simply trail-off.
More of an issue is that Grossman’s treatment of the Russian peasantry and the oppressed is romanticised, so that it has almost a propagandistic flavour; indeed, I felt as though I, as the reader, was being manipulated somewhat. For example, during the chapter on collectivisation – which is, I might add, possibly the most harrowing and upsetting thing I have ever read – Grossman writes about one mother reading fairy-tales to her starving, dying children in an effort to distract them from their pain. All the oppressed people throughout the book are so lovingly described, they are all so gentle, so noble, so kind and patient and forbearing in their suffering that it just does not ring true. They are, like Ivan, like Prince Myshkin, christ-like, they are representations of The Russian Soul. For the record, I want to point out that my sympathy is entirely with them, with the ill-treated, with the genuine, real victims of Stalinism; in fact, there is a certain level of guilt accompanying my words here, but I am trying to approach the book as literature; and, as such, Everything Flows is a failure. But, then, I guess that a believable, successful novel was never really Grossman’s aim; what he wanted to do was try to understand what had happened to his beautiful country, his beautiful people, and so one can overlook, even admire, a touch of sentimentality.
For a book that had such a powerful emotional and intellectual hold on me, I do not want to end on a criticism. I said to someone the other day that Vasily Grossman had a simple, direct way of getting to the heart of everything, that I find very moving. And on that note I’ll finish up with something from the text, something simple and direct, and pretty fucking devastating…
*these arguments, where it appears as though one is trying to absolve those who participate in tyrannical regimes, are Grossman’s not mine.