Steve Kettmann's Reviews > Europe Central

Europe Central by William T. Vollmann
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May 02, 10


Here's the review I published early on in the San Francisco Chronicle, well before this won the National Book Award:

Slipping downhill with Joseph and Adolf
A novel with a moral core explores their legacy of evil
Reviewed by Steve Kettmann

Sunday, May 1, 2005

Europe Central

By William T. Vollmann

VIKING; 811 PAGES; $39.95


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It's neither an exaggeration nor an insult to say that William T. Vollmann's throbbing, twitching, exasperating -- and brilliant -- "Europe Central" might push a few readers toward madness.
No, that's too tame: "Europe Central," angry and vivid, claustrophobic and consuming, mesmerizing and meandering, has an emotional force capable of ripping almost any reader from his moorings, or at the very least, inspiring a strange and overpowering urge to sit sobbing over Dmitri Shostakovich's heartbreaking, dead-man-walking Opus 110 for days on end.

Vollmann's aims are bold. His starting point is a pained awareness of the fact that by approaching some unknowable infinity of evil, their examples too extreme to wrap our minds around, the two great criminals of the 20th century exist in most of our imaginations as wax figures in some walled-off freak-show mausoleum of the mind.

Ever the provocateur, Vollmann takes on the near-impossible task of crashing through those walls, with the smell of burnt rubber in the air, and pulling Hitler and Stalin back from the useless realm of inert, hardened collective memory. He seeks to reanimate their obscene legacies the only way that actually works -- painfully.

It's painful, for example, to find oneself rooting for a tall, blond, blue-eyed S.S. Obersturmführer whose duties include supplying toxic canisters to the death camps of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka -- but here's the twist: Obersturmführer Kurt Gerstein hated the Nazi regime, which had killed his beloved sister-in-law Berthe, worked to undermine it whenever he could and was one of the rare few who took great risks trying to get word to the Allies. History records the efforts of the real Kurt Gerstein, but Vollmann's fictionalized version of Gerstein comes through much more vividly than any mere history lesson, right down to the bad breath.

"On the train from Warsaw to Berlin, he met a Swedish attaché and told him what he had seen at Belzec, whispering in his ear all that hot and ghastly night," Vollmann writes. "Soon he'd lapsed into the present tense: The people stand together on each other's feet. Seven hundred, eight hundred people in an area of twenty-five square meters! At his side, Baron von Otter stood rigidly there in the corridor of the sleeping car, turning his face away from the blond man's breath."

Slippery characters interest Vollmann; he likes to explore how and when they slipped. "These stories are not as rigorously grounded in historical fact as my 'Seven Dreams' books," he explains in a note on sources. "Rather, the goal here was to write a series of parables about famous, infamous and anonymous European moral actors at moments of decision."

Near the center of the book, for example, Vollmann devotes two sections to a fascinating pair of lieutenant-generals, a Russian, Andrei Vlasov, and a German, Friedrich Paulus, each of whom went from one side to the other in the thick of World War II. Vlasov was captured by the Germans and agreed to form his own anti-Stalin force, called "Vlasov's Army." Paulus, the hapless general tasked with presiding over the horrific German defeat at Stalingrad, was captured by the Red Army and, like Vlasov, used by the other side for propaganda purposes. Oddly, both men come through in Vollmann's telling as sad, doomed and sympathetic.

No figure comes across as achingly ambiguous, though, as Shostakovich, that brilliant, tormented giant among modern composers. The source note at the end refers to an "Imaginary Love Triangle" between Shostakovich, the documentary filmmaker Roman Karmen and a translator, Elena Konstantinovskaya - - but this is a pretty exaggeration. A triangle, after all, is a closed structure, decisive in shape -- and Vollmann's Shostakovich, a stammering enigma given to maddening thought-stuttering -- well, you know; full stop --

flows like liquid from one moral quandary to the next, unable to choose or even to admit that he's not choosing.

He is, in short, a haunted man, driven almost to madness after decades of being hounded by Stalin's henchmen and their successors, and his hallucinatory obsession with Konstantinovskaya, whom he never married, burns on many, many years after he's even spoken to her. This uneasy obsession, buried under layers of posing for the Soviet authorities and fighting off calls for him to join the Party, comes through so disturbingly, it's hard not to feel wounded right along with him; as a metaphor for a broken soul, ruined by the horrors of wartime Leningrad and so much else, the love-story chord hits its mark with sublime accuracy. What would be the point of happiness, after all, in a world that Stalin and Hitler had rendered so obscene?

"Perhaps [Van:] Cliburn knew more than he pretended," Shostakovich thinks after a 1958 meeting with the gifted American pianist. "But Shostakovich remained convinced that this American was part of the natural process of forgetting. Call him a bacterium on the moldering corpse of our war-memories. Soon there'd be nothing left, not even bones."

"Europe Central" is not without its flaws. A few of the sections seem, in the end, like the fictional equivalent of balloons that have slipped out of their holder's hands, bobbing skyward most beautifully, but not in a way that connects with anything. That said, William Vollmann deserves a hearty ovation: He has done as much as anyone in recent memory to return moral seriousness to American fiction, and here's hoping that this jarring, haunting absurdly ambitious symphony of a book will inspire other writers to batter down mental barriers, the way that Shostakovich's music did.

Steve Kettmann lived in Berlin from 1999 to 2003, contributing to The Chronicle and other publications.

http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi...

This article appeared on page B - 6 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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