Monday, July 23, 2012

Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge

"Around seven in the morning, D
personally loaded his two suitcases
into the taxi."

Opening to 
Unforgiving Years
by Victor Serge
Translated from the French by
Richard Greeman
You have probably never heard of Victor Serge (1890-1947).  I never heard of him before I found the NYRB edition of his novel Unforgiving Years.   Mr. Serge was a communist long before it was cool, as they say.  He participated in several revolutions, including the Russian revolution.  He was a figure of some note in the early days of the Soviet Union, but was forced into exile during Stalin's reign.  While he lived to see the end of World War II. Mr. Serge did not live to see the end of Stalin.  During his final days in exile he wrote several novels "for the desk drawer," books he knew would never find a publisher because they were to sympathetic towards communism for western publishers and too critical of Stalinism for the Soveit Bloc.

The thing about writing for the desk drawer is that you can write whatever you want, say whatever you want to say, when you believe no one is ever going to read it.

Unforgiving Years concerns a Soviet agent, known as D., who wants to peacefully retire, and a second agent called Daria who by the closing section of the novel must end D.'s retirement.   The book is divided into four parts.  The first takes place in pre-war Paris where D. is making plans to leave the Soviet intelligence agency he works for.  He is not a spy who wants to come in from the cold, but a man, disillusioned with what his work has become, who wants to live out his final days in peace.  He tries but fails to convince the idealistic Daria to join him.  The second part finds Daria working for the Soviet army at the battle of Stalingrad.  In the third, Daria is in Berlin working with the underground against the Nazis in the closing days of World War II.  The final section finds Daria on a mission for the Soviets to assasinate D. who is living in Mexico, echoing what happened to Leon Trotsky once he fell out with Joseph Stalin.

The most compelling section is the third one, "Bridgitte, Lightning, Lilacs."  Mr. Serge's depiction of the fall of Berlin is a masterpiece of brilliant writing.  Rather than maintain his focus on his master spy Daria and her work with the underground, he shifts focus from her to various characters connected, some very loosely, to her.  Through this depiction of a wide variety of non-combatants and a small number of soldiers, Mr Serge recreates the experience of chaos his characters lived through.  None of them really know what is going on as the city falls around them.  Daria works secretly as a nurse in a German hospital treating those too severely wounded to flee the advancing Soviet army.  She plans to kill a blinded soldier out of mercy to save him from the army she is a part of. An old man wonders the streets speculating about the German army's secret plans to counterattack right up to the final moments.  An arrested member of the French resistance plots his escape from the hospital where both he and Daria work while the doctors in charge discuss whether or not they should execute him before they flee for their lives.  Another old man tends the lilacs in his flower garden which somehow survived the war unscathed only to take his one life the day after the war ends. Americans arrive with a reporter in tow.  The reporter trying  to interview the survivors asks an old woman if she feels any guilt for what she has done.  She  looks around at the destroyed city and replies I didn't do this.

Mr. Serge makes a mockery of the notion of collective guilt but he also explores aspects of World War II that wouldn't be mentioned in polite company for decades including the Jewish holocaust and the mass rapes of German women that occurred once the Nazis fell.  It's not comfortable reading, but I found it myself reading part three of Unforgiving Years well past my own bed time.  While I enjoyed and admire all four sections of Unforgiving Years, part three knocked my socks off.  All on it's own it makes Unforgiving Years my new favorite book.  I'll be looking for more by Victor Serge.


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