Everything Flows

Note: Những cuốn, như cuốn này, cuốn Đời và Số, của Vasily Grossman, hay những cuốn của Isaac Babel - Kỵ Binh Đỏ, thí dụ - và trên tất cả, thơ của Anna Akhmatova, văn của Solzhnitsyn, chúng là 1 mảng văn học Nga ngược hẳn lại thứ văn học Nga, mà Miền Bắc ca tụng. Một cách nào đó, nó nói lời sám hối trước đất nước và nhân dân Nga.
Xứ Mít của Bắc Kít, của Vẹm chưa từng có thứ này. NQT


VASILY GR0SSMAN has become recognized not only as one of the great war novelists of all time but also as one of the first and most important of witnesses to the Shoah. "The Hell of Treblinka" (late 1944), one of the first articles in any language about a Nazi death camp, was used as testimony in the Nuremberg trials. And there may be no more powerful lament for East European Jewry than the chapter of Life and Fate that has become known as "The Last Letter"-the letter that Anna Semyonovna, a fictional portrait of Grossman's mother, writes in the last days of her life and manages to have smuggled out of the Jewish ghetto of a town under Nazi occupation. This chapter has been staged as a one-woman play in Paris, New York, and Moscow.
 Few novelists have incorporated more history into their novels than Grossman. Everything Flows is a quarter of the length of Life and Fate, but its historical scope is in some respects broader. The central story-about the struggle of a fifty-year-old man, Ivan Grigoryevich, to find a place for himself in post-Stalinist Russia after losing thirty years of his life to the Gulag-is interrupted by chapters about Moscow prisons in I937, about the sufferings of women in the camps, about Stalin's destruction of Soviet science in the late I940s, about the anti-Jewish campaign of the early 1950s, about Lenin and Stalin and the roots of "Russian slavery." Many of Grossman's thoughts-especially the suggestion that Stalin was heir both to the Russian revolutionary tradition and to the Russian secret police, and that his paranoia arose in part from the conflict between these two forces within his psyche-still seem startlingly bold. The novel even has room for a small playlet, a mock trial that follows Ivan's chance meeting with the informer responsible, long ago, for his being sent to the camps: the reader is asked to pronounce judgment on four informers, four different “Judases”. The arguments Grossman gives to both prosecution and defense are unexpected and lively; as members of the jury, we are constantly taken off guard, repeatedly forced to change our minds. The trial eventually falls apart, dissolved by the reflection that the living have, without exception, compromised themselves and that only the dead-who, of course, cannot speak-have the right to pass judgment.
Some of these digressions are introduced as Ivan's thoughts or writings. The most powerful chapter of all, an account of the 1932-33 Terror Famine that brought about the deaths of three to five million peasants in the Ukraine, is narrated by Ivan's landlady, Anna Sergeyevna, just after she has become his lover. Anna Sergeyevna was herself involved, as a minor Party official, in the implementation of the measures that caused this famine. She is an attractive figure, and we cannot help but identify not only with the middle-aged Anna telling the story but also with the young Anna of the time of the famine; once again, Grossman denies the reader the luxury of unalloyed indignation. This chapter about the least-known act of genocide of the last century is subtle, complex, and unbearably lucid. Only Dante, in his account of Ugolino and his sons starving to death in a locked tower, has written of death from hunger with equal power.
Almost every step of Grossman's career-even after his death-has been marked by long delays and tedious, protracted battles. Editors, publishers, and politicians seem to have responded to the painful and intractable nature of Grossman's subject matter with an equal intractability of their own. For a Just Cause, the fine but more orthodox war novel to which Life and Fate is a sequel, was originally titled Stalingrad. This title was abandoned after Mikhail Sholokhov, by then the grand old man of Soviet letters, asked at an editorial meeting, "Who gave him the right to write about Stalingrad?" Sholokhov's implication, clearly understood by everyone present, was that a mere Jew had no right to be writing about one of the most glorious chapters of Russian history-let alone to be writing about it with such truthfulness. From 1949 to 1952, Grossman and his editors struggled to meet the demands of the authorities. No less than twelve sets of author's proofs remain, and the editors of Novy Mir made three abortive attempts to print the novel before publishing a heavily cut version in 1952. A less cut version was published in 1954 and a full version in 1956. As for Life and Fate itself, not only were Grossman's manuscripts confiscated by the KGB, but even after the satirist Vladimir Voinovich had smuggled a microfilmed text to the West, it took almost five years to find a publisher for the first Russian edition-mainly, it seems, because of anti-Semitism among Russian emigres. Grossman's friends and admirers were bewildered and shocked. In 1961, after what he always referred to as the "arrest" of Life and Fate, Grossman said it was as if he had been "strangled in a dark corner." Dismayed at being unable to find a publisher twenty years later, Voinovich said it was as if Grossman were being strangled a second time.
Even after the first publication of translations of Life and Fate in the mid-1980s, Grossman's reputation grew only slowly. Grossman would have had little time for postmodernism, and it is perhaps not surprising that postmodernism had little time for him. It may have been easier during the decade following the collapse of the Berlin Wall to imagine that we can be free of the weight of history, to believe that we need only adopt different metaphors, different visions-and reality will be transformed. Today, however, as the ecological crisis deepens and the West is drawn into one seemingly insoluble conflict after another, it is harder to doubt the stubbornness of reality-and Grossman's realism seems more valuable than ever. Grossman is, on occasion, both witty and joyful, but he is seldom ludic; he is not given to flights of fancy and he is linguistically inventive only when plainer, more ordinary words are inadequate. If, however, one accepts Coleridge's definition of imagination as "the power to disimprison the soul of fact," then Grossman was endowed with an imagination of supreme power and-above all-steadiness. 
It is hard to believe that a single man could possess the strength to write with such clarity about so many of the most terrible pages of twentieth-century history-the siege of Stalingrad, the Shoah, the Terror Famine. The source of such strength must remain a mystery, but Grossman himself certainly linked it to the memory of his dead mother, Yekaterina Savelievna. He felt guilty that he had not done more to save her in 1941, that he had failed to persuade her to join him in Moscow and so escape the invading German armies. This admission of guilt, however, seems not to have weakened him but to have lent him clarity and determination. This is clear from the guardedly optimistic conclusion to the story of Viktor Shtrum (in many ways a self-portrait of Grossman) in Life and Fate. After betraying men he knows to be innocent, Shtrum expresses the hope that his dead mother will help him to act better another time; his last words in the novel are "Well then, we'll see…. Maybe I do have enough strength. Your strength, Mother…"
Grossman believed that his mother was, in some way, alive and present in the pages of Life and Fate. In a letter to her on the twentieth anniversary of her death, he wrote: "I am you, dear Mama, and as long as I live, then you are alive also. When I die you will continue to live in this book, which I have dedicated to you and whose fate is closely tied to your fate." Grossman's mother is no less present in Everything Flows. Anna Sergeyevna first comes to Ivan's bed on hearing him call out for his mother in a nightmare. And her account of the famine is similar in tone to Anna Semyonovna's last letter from the ghetto; these two chapters are among Grossman's supreme achievements, and both are laments-for millions who died, for whole worlds that were destroyed. Both chapters are historically truthful; both chapters are written with the sensitivity of a supreme poet.
Everything Flows is an unfinished work; Grossman began it in 1955 and was still revising it during his last days in the hospital in September 1964. It is unbalanced in its structure, and the burden of history it carries is so overwhelming that most novels would sink under its weight. Nevertheless, Everything Flows is a work of art; important though it is as a historical document, it is far more than a historical document. Even if the essays on Lenin and Stalin cause us to lose sight of Ivan Grigoryevich for most of the last quarter of the novel, and even if Ivan eventually becomes barely distinguishable from Grossman himself, Ivan's fate still moves us. And the novel's structure, however schematic, carries meaning: central to this structure is the idea that the telling of stories, of histories-the telling of my story and your story, of her story and his story-can be a gift. In the first chapters Ivan and his cousin, Nikolay, approach their long-awaited meeting with great hopes. Ivan hopes to be released from the burden of all that he has seen and suffered in the camps; Nikolay-a successful scientist- hopes to be released from the burden of the guilt he feels on account of all the compromises he has made in order to stay "free." Nikolay, however, feels threatened by Ivan's presence-and the breath of the camps he brings with him-and no real conversation, no true exchange of stories, takes place. Ivan leaves abruptly, lonelier and more burdened than ever.
In the second half of the novel, however, Ivan finds understanding and love; and the failed conversation between the two cousins is balanced by a true conversation between Ivan and his lover. Anna Sergeyevna's account of the Terror Famine-an act of genocide in which she was complicit-is a gift of love. She tells her story lucidly, with absolute trust and with absolute truthfulness. She is not trying to escape her pain by inflicting it on Ivan, nor is Grossman trying to escape his own pain by inflicting it on the reader. Grossman is simply doing what he can to remember the lives and deaths of millions who have been too little remembered.
Ivan accepts this immense gift, this gift of love and trust, and he does his best to reply in kind. Anna is taken away from him- by illness and, eventually, by death- but this does not bring an end to their conversation. Just as Grossman continued writing letters to his mother, so Ivan talks to Anna in his imagination and writes down for her-in a school exercise book that had once belonged to her nephew-his uncompromising thoughts about Lenin, Stalin, and the Russian "slave soul." Ivan fully understands the importance of this unbroken conversation; in the penultimate chapter he says to Anna, some time after she has died, 

Do you know? At the very worst times I used to imagine being embraced by a woman. I used to imagine this embrace as something so wonderful that it would make me forget everything I had been through. It would be as if none of it had ever happened. But it turns out that it's you I have to talk to, that it's you I have to tell about the very worst time of all. You yourself, after all, talked all through that first night. Happiness, it turns out, will be to share with you the burden I can't share with anyone else-the burden I can share only with you.

This exchange of gifts is not, of course, enough to save Anna's life, nor is it enough to restore the thirty years that Ivan has lost to the Gulag. It is, however, enough to validate Grossman's claim that freedom does not die, that it is the essence of our humanity. For all the pain gathered within it, Everything Flows is a gift, Grossman's last gift to the world. And one of the most precious understandings it embodies is that if we can speak truthfully and trustingly, our histories can cease to be burdens. Any story, truly told and truly listened to, can become a gift.


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