[See also my thoughts on the sequel to this novel, The Betrayal.]
29 May 2012
These chapters feel like a prologue. There’s just been what we now realise is to be the last pleasant family evening for a very long time indeed. (I meant it’s a pleasant evening – but I might as well have meant pleasant family as well: so far, aside from some historical tweaks, they strike me as middle class Home Counties, transposed to Leningrad as the War is about to catch up with them. I’ll come back to that.) Helen Dunmore has been signalling that this is the end of a familiar way of life: Anna, the character whose point of view we are following, will one day wish she could remember its ordinariness in more detail – although, in the present tense in which this novel is written, I don’t know how she knows that yet. But she will, apparently.
In these chapters Dunmore is able to give us the back story. We find out all the important stuff we need to know about the family, and have been reminded about the awfulness of life in Stalin’s Soviet Union even before Nazi aggression brought it into the War. Dunmore makes the horrors of Stalinism as concrete as she can. Anna’s father, Mikhail or Misha, is a writer who had been making a good living until the Party decided his stories were not optimistic enough. In a flashback to a difficult meeting we see the double-think of his editorial board in action. Later we find out his income is only one fifth of what it had been. A friend of the family, another arts success – she’s a famous actress, Marina Petrovna, as bad as Misha at toeing the Party line – has been publicly discredited and is forced to live in the middle of nowhere.
Meanwhile, everybody fears the ubiquitous black vans that prowl the streets, and the knock on the door after midnight. Everybody has felt the guilty relief of realising that this time it’s somebody else who is about to disappear. Anna would have been a contender for great achievements if her uber-capable mother, an academic in the field of medicine, hadn’t died in childbirth at the age of 41. Now she has to look after not only her impractical father but her new brother Kolya instead of continuing her studies. She’s only an assistant in the nursery school where she works, and her boss, Elisaveta something-or-other, is as jealous of her own qualified teacher status as she is dismissive of Anna’s abilities. She’s also a stickler for the Party line, so it’s important to be able to parrot approval for the political status quo.
What Anna seems to be good at, apart from her ability to run the household like a well-oiled machine – she takes after her dead mother in that, as in her obvious cleverness in other ways – is drawing. She’s diffident about her abilities – ‘I’m only an amateur’ – but Marina Petrovna is impressed enough by some examples Misha has sent her to commission a portrait. This is when we get to see the depth of obscurity the former actress now lives in, up a farm track beyond the vicious dogs who think it’s their job to guard it… etc. This is Dunmore making it real, of course. And she makes it real in another way that night. Anna dreams her father is telling her an old story of his, of General Hunger and General Winter. I’ve never heard a less suitable bedtime story, as both generals describe, in lurid detail, what they can do to human beings. They also gleefully remind each other that they couldn’t do it without the help of the human beings themselves. I wanted to stop and tell Helen Dunmore that yes, we get it. Why does she think we need this particular spelling-out of what we know is to come? (And it follows all those warnings about the end of things. Nobody could accuse Dunmore of making things difficult for the reader.)
And on cue, next day, the game begins. The last evening of the old way of things has taken place in their dacha, the one whose garden Anna has turned into a vegetable plot. A neighbour tells her that the Germans have declared war and that she hasn’t any honey to spare after all, what with the bad winter and everything…. Anna only regrets that she’s so far from Leningrad – about 30 kilometres – fearing that the shops will be cleaned out before she can get back. It’s high summer and, this being Russia, can winter be far behind?
Aside from a quotation from Nazi archives that serves as a kind of epigraph to the novel – it refers blandly to Hitler’s utter lack of interest in the survival of Leningrad and its population – we’ve been entirely with Anna for five chapters. And then we’re not, because we get the first of her father’s diary entries, describing a changed Leningrad. He’s like a detached observer, although he has managed to notice that Anna is spending most of her time scuttling around the city following up rumours of supplies of food. To me, his writing sounds a bit half-baked, but I don’t know if that’s Dunmore’s satirical take on his impracticality. At least he’s careful enough to keep it hidden beneath a floorboard. He ends up, as we find out in another diary entry, volunteering for an under-prepared, under-equipped citizens’ defence force. I’ll come back to that second diary entry, because it brings in the romantic interest for Anna.
Anna. She finds herself digging anti-tank and other defences with a band of women. It’s thankless work – Soviet officialdom is uniformly rude and sarcastic in Dunmore’s presentation of it – but at least she makes some temporary friends. And Dunmore makes it real again: the pretty but rather spoilt fifteen-year-old daughter of a privileged Party official is killed by a wall they are demolishing. So it goes. In a flashback we find out that Anna can only be away from the flat because Marina Petrovna is now staying there and can look after Kolya. And… I’m finding it all a bit dull, if I’m honest. I’m sure Dunmore has done her research, but I don’t get any sense of a Russian mind-set. As with Anna’s family before, it feels as though every single one of her characters is really English, transposed into a different time and place. Sure, we get an occasional – very occasional – reference to how careful you need to be to say the right thing. But otherwise, Dunmore’s method of getting us to sympathise with Anna and the others is to make them identical to us.
Anyway. As the summer progresses and the Nazis advance beyond the outer defences. Dunmore continues to concentrate on the human angle. So far, we haven’t seen any real hunger, but we’ve seen the sorts of things you’d expect: the truck full of wounded volunteers with their nasty injuries, the father vainly pleading with the medic on board to take his two-week-old baby, the pitiless attacks by German planes that kill anyone who isn’t quick enough to dive into a ditch. It’s chaos, although the population are, of necessity, slow to complain: you never know who might be listening.
The medic, a fourth-year student, is Andrei Michailovich, and he’s the one who finds the diary that Anna’s father has been writing as an army volunteer. The diary, written on a folded piece of paper, is largely about how difficult it is, not only for him but for an old woman he meets at a farm, to believe yet that things have really changed. After the initial panic there must always be this sense of it all feeling like a phoney war. He is wounded, although not dangerously, and the unit is near enough to Leningrad for him to be ferried back to hospital. Andrei is accompanying him and the others, and he is interested enough in Misha and his diary to make sure it is kept safe. Early in the morning, he takes it to the flat. We wonder who will be there to take it from him: we haven’t been told of Anna’s return from her trench-digging duties, so we assume it will be Marina who answers the door. But it’s Anna, and… it’s love. They have everything in common, are both ready to meet the right person and, in the middle of all this shit, we have a romance starting up. Just so we get the full benefit of it Dunmore, for the first time, lets us in on the point of view of another character. (Misha’s diary doesn’t count: it’s largely there to bring the love-birds together.)
I had wondered for a moment whether Anna might have been about to start something going with Yevgenya, the muscular, earthy woman in her work-party, but realised I was associating some of the details of this novel with Sarah Waters’ Night Watch. The other romance thread is, possibly, a past affair between Marina and Misha: Anna’s mother would never open any of the letters she used to address to her husband and her. I might be wrong about that as well – but whether I am or not, the fact that I’m reduced to making such speculations demonstrates how little else is going on. Life is not interesting in Dunmore’s Leningrad on the eve of one of the gravest crises of the War.
What have I missed? Marina turns out to be a useful ally, with money she realises is not going to retain its value for long, and her willingness to babysit. And Anna’s job no longer exists. She is still working with the horrible Elisaveta – is anybody outside of novels so unrelentingly unpleasant and without redeeming qualities? – but now they are registering evacuees on their way out of the city. (Dunmore has this habit of giving Anna tasks that place her neatly in situations that have historical resonance. What else would she do? She doesn’t just want to write a history… but she manages to make it as bland as everything else, despite the little moments of pathos or fear she’s careful to add to the mix.)
And at the end of Chapter 11 there’s a crisis that I’m refusing to believe really is one: after that first encounter with Andrei – Anna’s image of choice is ‘dancing in the dark’ (sigh) – he’s never come back. She’s fretting about it, but anybody with any sense in the larger-scale crisis that is engulfing the city might realise that it won’t be easy for a medic to just swan around as though he was in, let’s say, the Home Counties. Somebody should tell her this is Leningrad in 1941.
One of Dunmore’s problems in choosing a historical episode like the Siege of Leningrad is how not to make it ploddingly predictable. We know where it’s going, so what she has to do is make us interested, and she’s mainly – i.e. not entirely – decided to do this through the interactions of a tiny handful of characters. Anna remains competent and dedicated to the survival of the little family. Marina – Anna stopped using the patronymic some time ago – is almost unfeasibly sensible about how to use what had been a small fortune but is now diminished to almost nothing. Andrei – he only failed to see Anna because he was so busy, obviously – is becoming increasingly urgent in his needs. So far, Anna has not let him have sex, but Dunmore hasn’t spared us some fairly ghastly insights into the urges of this particular young man. Penetration’s the thing for him, or will be if he can ever get past Anna’s defences.
Then there are the dependents. First is Kolya, the nice middle class boy drawing tanks and townscapes, but no killing. (Dunmore is interested in drawing, and I wonder if she does it herself. As it is, Kolya’s sanitised drawings remind me a little of Dunmore’s writing style. There’s an occasional moment of horror, like the statutory description of a young soldier trying to hold in his intestines with his hands, and descriptions of the colours of wounds… but the Leningrad Anna and Marina inhabit is notable for its lack of grittiness. There are queues, Dunmore tells us, and there’s an episode in which a relatively small proportion of Anna’s final harvest from the dacha is creamed off by a checkpoint guard – he’s young, and apparently doesn’t realise how much he could have taken if he’d wanted – but, really, it isn’t that bad, and I’m over half-way through the novel already.)
The other dependent is Anna’s father. His wound would not be terribly serious under normal circumstances, but the blow to his head has left him rather out of touch with reality, and at first he almost seems ready to die. But then Marina gives his a good talking-to, and he improves… until winter comes, and there’s no heating in the flat. At the point I’ve reached, he’s beginning to see figures from his past gathering around his bed – only his dead wife has failed to appear, so far, but he’s expecting her – and he’s eating almost nothing. He is interested in life – I can’t remember if this is Anna’s insight or Dunmore’s narration – but this means Anna and Kolya’s lives, not his own. And Anna is not pressing food on him as she used to, as the potatoes and onions in their meagre store are down to numbers so small she can count them in her head.
Meanwhile…. Dunmore gives us occasional updates about the worsening situation in the larger world. The German army, with help from the Finns, has entirely encircled the city. There seems to be less of a bombardment now, as though the invading army is simply willing to sit it out: this is a blockade, and absolutely all supplies are cut off. For the first time, in a move that struck me as clumsy, Dunmore introduces a character who has nothing to do with the novel’s main protagonists: Pavlov, in charge of dealing with the resources the city has at its disposal. We’ve met him twice, and he’s an archetypal number-cruncher. The city’s 25,000 pigs might sound a lot, but how far would they go to feed three million or more people? (It turns out that far more have entered than were evacuated.) He begins to list possible sources of food: bark, leather, edible material processed from the soil where the city’s food warehouses have been burned to the ground…. Oh dear.
And now winter has arrived. Anna usually greets the first October snow with an almost childish delight, a response I found it impossible to believe, even in the best of times – but not this year. We’ve just had a chapter during which she and Marina have decided to acquire a wood-burning stove, and Anna has taken Kolya’s sledge to collect it. It is to cost a lot of money, a large proportion of their remaining sugar and lard rations… and Marina has given up the only ring she ever wears to be offered if necessary as a last resort. Marina’s role seems to be a kind of chorus of common sense. She knows the way things are going long before Anna has thought it through, and has come out with wise old saws like ‘You can’t eat money’ since her first arrival at the flat. Dunmore explains this by having her remind Anna that she lived through the First World War, but really I just think she’s read a history of the Siege sent back in time by a kindly author.
Ok, Anna and her family don’t have it exactly easy. It’s real winter now, and there are shivery descriptions of going to bed cold and hungry, waking up colder and hungrier (etc.) but, well, the really bad stuff happens to other people. I haven’t changed my mind about Dunmore being a kindly author. Things are bad, but she’s careful not to make them unbearable.
Dunmore gives us the bad things in short episodes as, usually, each chapter gives us a few hours in a day. A day in October, another day a couple of weeks later, and so on. (We’re into the misery of December now.) Usually some back story is filled in as one or other of the characters remembers recent events, or dreams of something in childhood – or something in an imagined future. In other words, Dunmore is tactful enough not to make the reader’s experience the relentless drudgery her characters are living through. And who can blame her? We also get a hint of the universality of the experiences, through an informal second-person approach. You find yourself dreaming of summer, you are amazed how much more valuable than gold a piece of bread seems now. Dunmore is no great stylist, relying instead on our willingness to go along with these musings that are sometimes Anna’s, but not always. It’s ok.
In Chapter 18 Anna goes looking for the stove, but discovers that the black-marketeers will give her nothing useful for the money and goods she has. She has to go back to the flat and, one by one, they all die of the cold. As if. What really happens is that, luckily, she bumps into Yevgenya, the bluff, muscular woman from the early chapters, who is streetwise enough to cut through the bullshit and get Anna a good deal on the stove. She throws other things into the mix, like the fact that she’s gone on the game for food (despite not being interested in men, she says), the protection rackets that are starting up, the come-uppance the black-marketeers will get once the blockade is lifted. It’s all new to the Home Counties girl. As it would be: how Anna has survived so long whilst not losing her humanity is hard to imagine.
The hunger gets worse. A small onion hiding in the bristles of a broom is a sign of hope. A laboratory guinea-pig that Andrei brings to the flat is the basis for a feast… but usually, it’s severely rationed bread and little else. Marina has the bright idea of using the wallpaper-paste – one of Pavlov’s recommended sources of nutrition – from the decorations on the toy fort that she and Kolya made before the siege. And so on. There’s an old woman cutting through the ice on the river for water who turns out to be a school-friend of Anna’s, only in her early 20s. Andrei thinks about the little girl he couldn’t keep alive, and the mother’s reaction. There’s a young mother across the landing to whom Anna demonstrates her humanity, if that’s what it is, by giving 100 grams of sugar for the baby. But, some weeks later, the woman brings the child who ‘isn’t very well’ to show Anna, and… guess. There’s pathos, but if there’s tragedy or horror it’s never quite centre-stage. Marina has decided that Anna will be a survivor, and I’m guessing she’s right.
This being the novel it is, there has to be an alternative to the everyday dehumanisation the siege brings. And what it’s all coming down to, not quite three quarters of the way through, is love. Andrei, whose flat has been burned out by a careless flat-mate, has moved in. They are both too raddled by hunger and cold for any of the things they had been contemplating earlier, but they are comfortable together on the mattress, often keeping Kolya warm between them. Marina is envious. She has finally told Anna of the affair with Misha – to her he’s Mikhail – and her story turns out to be about love as well: hers for him, and his for… Vera, always Vera. She tells the story twice, the second time without the rose-coloured glasses. (Why does Dunmore have her do this? Search me.) There was a pregnancy, an abortion. With the gentlest feminist spin we get a tiny insight into the lives of intellectuals, mainly men, in the early years of the Revolution. She has never loved anyone else, but knew he would never be hers even after Vera’s death. So it goes.
As for Misha…. He’s fading – how on earth has he lasted all these months? – and, as I’ve said, waits for Vera.
At the point I’ve reached, Anna has just been saved from certain death by – guess. She’s been out scavenging wood after a tip-off from the father of the dead baby, a man who has never had any time for the worthless intellectual in the big flat across the landing but who has enough humanity to be grateful for what Anna did. A well-fed, steel toe-capped man takes the wood from her and she’s wandering around in an almost hallucinatory state that is becoming almost a norm in these days of hunger. She doesn’t feel cold, and how tempting it would be simply to stop walking. It’s a thought she’s often had before, has always been able to trick herself into resisting, but not now…. And along comes her guardian angel again. It’s Yevgenya, who has wood and sugar to spare in her flat. Men might be shits, but at least they bring her stuff. There’s some female solidarity as they recognise in one another the instinct for survival that some people have and some simply don’t. Go figure.
Before this… what? As before, but worse. Vera has come back into Misha’s life at last. Sometimes, she is the only real presence with him in the room, even while ‘the others’ come and go, or make him do things he doesn’t want to do. She tells him he’ll be coming with her soon and, well, it doesn’t seem so bad. Pass me the sick-bucket. Otherwise the misery dial has been turned up a shade or two, but it’s still just this side of unbearable. Kolya, whose asthma has been an issue since the beginning of winter, is ‘a good boy’ but as tired and hungry as everybody else. Andrei has such badly swollen legs he needs a stick to walk. Anna, and all the characters, phase in and out of reality. Outside, falling snow sometimes morphs into a figure in front of her…. And there are snow-covered figures, real ones, in doorways, sitting on benches, simply lying where they have fallen. Nobody has the energy to do anything about them – which is why Yevgenya’s flat, warm and with tea on the boil, is such a life-saver. Literally.
Wider world: an unpredictable supply route is opened up across a lake, and is regularly being shelled. Tanks are still being built. There are rumours of cannibalism – believable enough to make us wonder whether the toe-capped thug who takes Anna’s wood is really after human flesh: he seems interested when she lies that all she is pulling on the sledge is her dead brother.
The problem I’m having with this book is the one I was expecting even before I read it. Once you know what it’s about – life during the Siege of Leningrad – it becomes clear that Dunmore doesn’t really have any options but to write it like this. She obviously has to include realistic details, both of the historical facts of the siege and of the (verifiable) effects of hunger and cold on human beings. It’s the human stories that are going to be important in a novel, so the historical facts have to be squeezed in wherever they will fit. Dunmore’s real job is to take us into the heart of darkness reached by the inhabitants – with the never-ending contemplation on the human condition that it forces on them – without making it too unbearable for the reader.
What you are going to end up with is almost bound to be the novel she’s written, because there’s only one possible driver of the plot: survival. Everything else is secondary – that’s the point – which leaves a big hole for any writer. How can things like the blossoming love between Anna and Andrei or the history of Marina’s feelings for Misha be made to seem important? You might manage it at a thematic level – what remains of us is love – but, as for the characters, I know that I for one have never cared. Anna, Dunmore has signalled to us more than once, is going to survive. (This might not be true, of course – but if she does die it will be the first surprise of the novel.) As for the others… I really don’t care. That romantic fantasy of a beautiful Siberian lake in summer with Andrei? Maybe Dunmore will let it happen, maybe she won’t. It’s a toss-up. Andrei, like everyone else, has been reduced to what his body needs for survival. And what can a novelist do with that?
Chapter 27 to the end
When it comes – the end, I mean – it comes quickly. But that’s in the final chapter or two, and we’re not there yet. First we’re back with Pavlov, making his deadly calculations. His colleagues are scared of him, because he is the most powerful man in Leningrad. Except he isn’t: he isn’t making history, as he (or someone else) puts it; history is making him. Making him plot the tens of thousands of deaths per month, because the rations simply aren’t enough: 40,000 projected for December, and they are only the ones the authorities know about. He extrapolates, sees that unless more supplies can be brought over the ‘ice bridge’ the upward curve of the graph he is drawing will point vertically upwards, ‘to the ceiling’. He needs 200 tons of supplies per day, is only getting 50, but perhaps it is his secretary’s appalled gasp that ‘people will die!’ that makes him decide to take a risk. He increases the bread ration, if only by a pitifully small amount.
More than in any other part of the novel, these final chapters mix individual stories with the bigger picture in this way. We’re whisked to a flat somewhere in the city where an eleven-year-old girl writes the name of a dead family member as the first in a list. We are told that she will go through the whole family before relief comes. We are in the flat with Anna, awake in the huddle of four as she tries to work out how many days her father has been dead – five… or is it six? – and thinks of how they stretch their rations to two tiny servings per day. Another time, Anna wonders where Marina is, hoping she hasn’t half-collapsed again as she fetches water from the only source left on the ground floor. In fact Marina is talking to Misha – she calls him that now, as well – as his body lies there coated with frost. She is half-frozen in his room when Anna finds her, and has to be cajoled and tricked into coming out to warm up by the stove.
We can tell where Dunmore is going with this, and this day becomes a kind of turning-point. Marina, not as crazed as Anna and Andrei suspect, tells them to look in her felt boots. They humour her – and find two pots of jam. (What? What?) Suddenly it’s a feast day – like Easter, says Marina, and she is off into memories of life before the Revolution. She says Kolya can have her jam, she isn’t hungry. Andrei recognises the signs of starvation, finds himself lapsing into medical terminology as he warns Anna that Marina is almost certainly dying. But he can be sentimental in his Siberian way, asks Anna if she would sit by his body as Marina has sat by Misha’s. Anna, ever the materialist, says that a body is not the person who used to inhabit it. Later – and hands up anybody who didn’t see this coming – she changes her mind. What you’ve got to have in a novel like this is hope, and Dunmore lets us have our pots of jam. As I’ve said before, what else would she do?
But the blizzards of winter rage on, and we’re with a lorry-driver on the ice-road. He gets out of his cab to fix the simple electrical fault that’s caused it to stall, realises he hasn’t got the wire he needs, knows where he can find something to use in its place, is distracted by the sound of an engine…. One of his last thoughts before, tactfully, Dunmore leaves him lost in the snow is of a girl he knew who once dropped a hair-grip into the water – and we know that the girl was Anna, because we’ve heard the story before. This is how the lives of people we used to know are snuffed out in these days – and we’re whisked away into the city, where Andrei, exhausted by the wind and snow, stops inside a doorway. We know what this means, know how tempting it can be…. But Dunmore, as we knew she would really, makes him rouse himself and press on into the blizzard. Phew.
And then it’s over. (I told you it was quick.) It’s January, and Pavlov is able to set a match to the paper on which he drew his graph until, soon, it is nothing but ash. (Dunmore still likes to keep it real.) People outside are still hungry, but not starving: the ice-road is holding, the German bombers are constantly grounded by bad weather, and Pavlov can make some different calculations. Half the population of the city has died.
And time moves on again. Bodies are collected and buried – Marina and Misha in the same mass grave, perhaps, or perhaps not, together forever – and we’re out and about with Anna and Andrei. But where’s Kolya? Dunmore doesn’t make us wait long, because there he is playing – playing! – with another boy. And doesn’t Anna recognise that couple? It’s the mother who had been sent half-mad by the death of her baby, with – who? It’s her husband, almost a skeleton, but recovering. He says his illness saved his wife, who would have followed the child if she hadn’t had him to nurse. The last time they met, Anna quoted a fragment of a defiant line from her father’s beloved Pushkin – a poet Dunmore has used several times as a leitmotif of hope – and she completes the lines now. And aren’t those dandelion leaves there? They would make a good salad…. Then we’re whisked away to where a red-headed woman – did I mention that Yevgenya was a redhead? – is digging again, admired by the men working nearby
Is it terribly sentimental? Isn’t Dunmore glossing over years of war and decades of Stalinism yet to come? Maybe so, but I’ve found the later chapters easily the best in the book. The plodding predictability of the first half is replaced by a sense of fluidity as Dunmore finally realises that she can take the reader wherever she likes, does not have to be satisfied with the static camera-work of the single point of view. People praise this book, and I’m guessing it’s because of the last third of it, when Dunmore finally gets into her stride.