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The People Immortal by Vasily Grossman: An absorbing book, full of humanity

Book review: This is the first complete English translation of the Soviet writer’s debut novel

The People Immortal
The People Immortal
Author: by Vasily Grossman Translated by Robert and Elisabeth Chandler
ISBN-13: 978-1529414738
Publisher: MacLehose Press
Guideline Price: £25

A novel in which the Russian army is portrayed as heroic and principled may seem abhorrent at this time of callous misery for the people of Ukraine. But, in the 1940s, the army of the USSR was central to the routing of real Nazis. Vasily Grossman wrote The People Immortal in 1942 when the outcome of the war was far from clear. The novel itself — which first appeared in serial form in the Red Star newspaper — was both a testimony to the spirit of the troops and an expression of the values that the soldiers were fighting for.

This was Grossman’s first novel and the style he chose was the acceptable realism of the time. However, he was well aware of what it was permissible to say to ensure his writing met the approval of Stalin’s censors. It is a great bonus of this new translation of the novel — the first complete version in English — that there are extensive notes and support material which allow the reader to see which paragraphs were removed by either officials or Grossman himself before it could be published, as well as giving valuable details about the context in which the novel was written.

The novel centres on a division of the Red Army as they become aware that they are rapidly being encircled by the German army. We become acquainted with some of the key senior personnel along with a regular soldier, Semion Ignatiev, who represents the courageous ideal of Soviet man. That note of patriotic valour is held by all of those we meet in their determination to be victorious. As the troops, and those in villages through which they pass, endure hardship and death, Grossman never forgets the uplifting importance of “the people’s land” and the hardship of war is frequently contrasted with lyrical descriptions of the natural world. “How good the earth seems at such moments ... a breathing miracle of calm and peace.”

Allowing for the overstated nobility of the characters and their implicit allegiance to the political system for which they were fighting, this is an absorbing book, without the scope and critiques of Grossman’s Life and Fate but with all of its humanity and discernment.

Declan O'Driscoll

Declan O'Driscoll is a contributor to The Irish Times