Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Tank Driver with an Idée Fixe

Il’ia Boiashov’s Танкист, или «Белый тигр» (The Tank Driver or “White Tiger”) is a curious hybrid of a book that blends World War 2 history, mostly about tank warfare, with fantastical fiction focusing on a tank driver who nearly burns to death. If that doesn’t sound appealing, please consider this: the book was a finalist for several Russian literary awards, including the Booker and the National Bestseller awards. Boiashov’s language, humor, and historical endnotes work together to make the book both entertaining and illuminating.

The Tank Driver’s main character is Ivan Ivanovich Naidenov, a tank driver whose T-34 tank is killed in the 1943 Prokhorovka tank battle near Kursk. Ivan Ivanovich miraculously survives, disfigured by burns and an erased memory. His last name is based on the verb найти, to find. Ivan Ivanovich returns to tank driving, occasionally muttering “Белый тигр” (“White Tiger”), the name of a ghostlike tank he tries to track down.

The book contains plenty of background on war and tanks – Boiashov has a personal interest in tanks – so readers learn features of Soviet T-34s, German Tigers, and Canadian Valentines, among others. The book notes that there was no White Tiger tank model, making Ivan Ivanovich’s idée fixe resemble Captain Ahab’s, though German troops did paint tanks white in the winter.

Ivan Ivanovich, whose nicknames include Череп (Skull) and Van’ka Smert’ (Van’ka Death), is all about tanks: he’s a flawless, fearless, and decorated tank driver who runs on instinct, hears tanks speak, and believes the Great Tank Driver in the Sky can’t exist without a personal T-34. Ivan Ivanovich lacks worldly possessions, including a decent coat, so another character compares him to Akakii Akakeivich, the main character of Nikolai Gogol’s “Шинель” (“The Overcoat”). (previous post)

The other members of Naidenov’s crew have their own troubles: one is a serial womanizer who also plunders gold and other valuables, storing them in the tank; the second is a heavy drinker. Although Boiashhov said in an interview that he intended The Tank Driver to be a story of good and evil, he also notes that people and nations involved in war have a tendency to misbehave.

What’s most interesting for me about The Tank Driver is that Boiashov’s combination of allegory and fact results in a book the feels both suffused with history, thanks to its accurate information, yet removed from the everyday because of its main character’s almost schematically tragic incompleteness. Still, it was Ivan Ivanovich that held my interest whenever he drove onto the page: as a resurrected amnesiac with an obsession, Vank’a Smert’ is both sketchy and vivid, a fascinatingly touching and mythical figure.

The Tank Driver is a strange and wonderful short book. Though I admit my interest occasionally lagged in some of the longer historical and tank-oriented passages, I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about tanks and even took out two of our books on World War 2 tank warfare to look at photos. I suppose I have a history of that, though: I was a very willing visitor to the Patton Museum outside Louisville two years ago, where I saw many tanks, including a King Tiger, one of the models mentioned in The Tank Driver.

I think part of Ivan Ivanovich’s appeal is that, in his seemingly impenetrable tank skin, he sums up so much about the fragility of the human condition, representing all of us. Boiashov certainly deserved his many nominations: it takes an impressive combination of historical knowledge and literary skill to write a book that conveys so much and makes the fantastic feel so real.

Tank photos via Wikipedia: Top is Russian T-34 destroyed at Prokhorovka; photo from Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), author Koch. Second photo is of the sectioned King Tiger tank that I saw at the Patton Museum.


  1. Is this available in English translation?

  2. Thank you for asking, Bill. Unfortunately, no, the book is not available in English translation.

  3. I recently found the film from this book, White Tiger, with English subtitles, and was captivated by it within the first ten minutes. So much so I stopped the film, with the idea that I would read the book first. So I am most disappointed that it hasn't been translated. And also wonder why? It sounds like a fascinating book, and sure to find an audience. Your excellent review has been the only thing I've been able to find about it. Thank You

    1. Thank you for your comment, Unknown. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed the film but am sorry that White Tiger has yet to be translated. My full answer to your "why" question would be long and complex but here's a short version. Very few books are translated into English in the first place. And if nobody (author, translator, literary agent, anyone!) has tried to get Tiger translated then it's even unlikelier that it will be translated. Boiashov's The Way of Muri was translated by Amanda Love Darragh and it's possible that publisher, Hesperus, and others might not have been interested in more if their expectations weren't met. But, as they say in Russian: Hope dies last.