Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Weight of “Heavy Sand”

Anatolii Rybakov’s Тяжёлый песок (Heavy Sand) is a Russian novel that reads almost like a triptych of novellas. The first third of the book is a pre-revolutionary love story about a Swiss man and a Ukrainian woman. The second segment shows how they raise a large family in a small Soviet-era city. The final portion details how World War 2 destroyed the family and most of the rest of the city’s Jewish population.

Characters and the consistent, homey narrative voice of Boris, one of the couple’s sons, link the three pieces of Heavy Sand. Boris tells their life stories, often interrupting himself to step forward or backward in time. He even occasionally addresses his readers, asking, for example, if we’ve remembered certain characters, are familiar with Jewish traditions, or know historical details about World War 2. Though the voice sometimes feels a little more folksy than I prefer, I was grateful that at least one writer has found a graceful way to gently remind me who is who!

Heavy Sand left me with a mixed impression. The cross-cultural love story felt fairly conventional, partly because the couple, headstrong Rakhil’ and steady Yakov, felt a little stereotypical. In the middle section, some characters appear and feel important, only to disappear after what turn out to be life-like cameo appearances. This piece of the book provides a “lite” version of Stalinist repression that enabled Heavy Sand to be published in a journal during the 1970s: prison camps are not mentioned and the justice system works. Heavy Sand’s picture of the Stalin era contrasts sharply with Rybakov’s later Дети Арбата (Children of the Arbat) trilogy, which even includes Stalin as a character.

Warnings of the war first sneak into Heavy Sand in the person of a Polish refugee who comes to Russia and works with Boris. Rybakov, through Boris, who survives the war through military service, is at his narrative best when he describes how most of the family dies under German occupation. Boris’s voice combines pride and anger, factualness and emotion, creating scenes of unforgettable cruelty. 

As I read the last chapters, I realized the power of the ordinariness of Rybakov’s characters: Boris shows us the remarkableness of good people, some children, some elderly. Though many of the characters seemed rather flat for most of the book, the vividness of their final decisions and actions and, ultimately, their deaths, made them feel very real.

With so much death and brutality, the last third of the book is quick-paced and very emotional. Boris often repeats “вечная память” (“eternal memory”) after eulogizing his family members and neighbors, giving the book’s final pages the feel of a prayer. This Novelguide page mentions several of the religious motifs from Heavy Sand. It also notes the final page, on which, after the war, a partisan asks Boris if the Russian and Hebrew lines on a memorial stone read the same. They do not, though Boris says they do, highlighting differing versions of official history. 

For further reading: 

"Soviet Jews in War: A Searing Account" -- New York Times PDF article (subscribers or paid download), December 26, 1978

Anatoly Rybakov on Amazon


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