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Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge
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Feb 26, 2011

it was amazing

When, at last, you open your eyes after feeling the day's warmth full upon your face, what if the vision that stands before you reveals not a golden, lambent orb levering itself free from earthly bonds but millions upon millions of souls aflame, burning spirits in solar flare, emancipated from the cadavers to light the gaping maw of hell? Would you weep for the murdered revolution? Would you recognize its tomb for the abyss?

The above bit of symbolic lugubriousness does a fair job of summing up the absolute core of Serge's brilliantly bleak and despairing quadtych, set in and around the cataclysmic mechanical destruction that comprised the Second World War—but it is, really, so much more. I'd held back from posting a more detailed review, simply because I felt a tad unsure of how to proceed in lauding this work of concupiscible and coruscating darkness, a hallucinatory nightmare conjured forth from the dimmest recess of hell at the beck of a squirming and sweating recumbent mind suffering all the painful withdrawals from a cherished and necessary belief. It's an unendingly grim—but, ultimately, hopeful—slice of tragedy, along with Vasily Grossman's epic Life and Fate the single best depiction of how utterly disabled in purpose and faith a legion of dedicated communists were rendered when the brutal truth of the terrible and murderous perversions worked upon the glorious Revolution by the despot Stalin—and, by complicity, themselves—could no longer be ignored or explained away.

Based in part upon his own experiences, in another of those of select personages he had encountered during his peripatetic life as a man without state, Serge created a circle of four members of the Comintern—two old communists, the introspective, calculating, and philosophical D. (also Sacha, also Bruno Battisti) and his comrade-in-revolution, the angularly beautiful and inwardly passionate Daria—and a pair of junior agents, D.'s steely-but-vulnerable and somewhat naïve wife, Nadine (aka Noémi) and his dedicated and somewhat naïve French underling, Alain, who is also Nadine's part-time lover. In the opening section, entitled The Secret Agent, D.—growingly disillusioned and appalled by the unending executions of the old Bolsheviks and the deadly intrigues visited upon committed fighters in the Spanish Civil War, is presumably pushed over the edge by the announcement of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Unable to work any further towards the corrupted ends of Historical Materialism, he announces his resignation—a decision that, to a senior Comintern agent, is answerable only by death. Serge exquisitely portrays here a Paris on the cusp of disaster, all strained grins and frippery and drunken revels and nervous glancing over one's shoulder. As the shadows lengthen, D. and Nadine experience wave upon wave of paranoia when they understand that D's letter of resignation has been prematurely discovered and teams of killers already on the hunt for the traitorous pair: or are they? With Alain devastated by this betrayal by an idealized boss and passionate lover, and Daria refusing, in the end, to accompany the pair into exile, sublimating her desire to do so to the more powerful strictures of service to the Grand Cause, all of the frantic hiding and panicked dodging and near misses are never explicity revealed as existing in reality—are they, perhaps, the illusory terrors teased forth by a pair of guilty and depressed minds?

The second section is a stunning depiction of a starving, filthy, and emaciated Leningrad during the hardcore nine hundred-day siege. Daria—brought to the city from a term of exile in the Kazakh deserts imposed as punishment for her close relationship with the traitor D.—serves the Red Army headquarters as a translator of German prisoners and intercepts. This is an immensely beautiful and lyrical portrayal, a gelid, frozen city constantly visited by overburdened blankets of steel that blot out the sky and endlessly contribute more cottony bounty to the omnipresent snow that bleaches everything to a shade of white as aptly empty as the resolute city denizen's bellies. This is all death and madness, hunger and lust, explosions and quiet, solitude and crowded company buried under the mounds of frozen earth. Daria's erotic and earthy prose poetry written in code; fulsome cerise detonations as the sun sinks below the melting point of endless sky with infinite steppe; breathless, tortured flight through an arctic blizzard into the besieged city; her torrid, but doomed, love affair with the eternal optimist soldier, Klim; demented and unreal forays across the ice-garbed breadth of the Neva river in search of enemy prey; German soldiers driven beyond the borderlands of lunacy by the enduring torments of a hostile and alien north that lashes with cold and kills with a fury; the implacable will of the starving populace to endure this inhuman grind; it's an astonishing, preternatural achievement.

Serge switches gears for the third part, in which an unnamed German city—though almost certainly meant to be Berlin—is the prime loci for the cataclysm and myriad horrors of total war the limn nearly every page. With Daria now undercover as Erna, a Lithuanian dissident nurse gone over to the Great Reich, and Alain a leader of a band of partisan outlaws seeking refuge—whilst working sabotage—amongst the cellar shadows of the battalions of bombed out buildings that now epitomize urban Germany, the threads of horror, intertwining as the war approaches its sanguinary climax, are all drawn in towards this bombed-out hell-on-earth. As the American and Red Armies inexorably close in, Serge shows the German populace suffering the same savageries, enduring the same traumas and miseries, as their armies dished out to the rest of Europe. To Serge, this war is one of complicity between a Fascism allied with international Capitalism, all working against—and thus perverting—an isolated Soviet Union and its burgeoning efforts at global socialist brotherhood. Whilst SS officers and Party bigwigs carry out bitterly comedic routine executions and reprisals—and loot what remains of staples and luxuries—whilst the roof is caving in all around them, the average German is a confused and miserable entity, daily struggling to find the energy to work and to scrape up sufficient food to feed oneself, let alone one's family. This typology of the overwhelmed and ordinary German citizen is realized in the hobbled Franz Minus-Two—limbs, that is—a war veteran cashiered into lurking amongst the ruins, eying the bounteous destruction with a mix of repressed violent urges and sarcastic mockery; whereas the Teutonic blend of dutiful innocence is revealed in the trembling grace of Brigitte, a lovely young German lass driven to the edge—perhaps over the edge—of madness by the news of her fiancé's death at the hands of the SS for an insufficient commitment to a war of extermination. Passages where she sits in her room—the sole upper story apartment remaining in her mangled tenement building—and watches the explosive colour spray of a nighttime air raid, all flowery prismatic blossoms that match the blood that continually seeps from the cruel blade driven into her heart by loss—are haunting and ethereal. In the end, whether rich or poor, the sentence for the defeated Germans is one of bemused contempt by overfed and ignorant American journalists or rape and beatings by hornet-mad Soviet soldiers. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The concluding piece dramatically alters the scenery, swapping for the devastated rubble and dusty insanity of a broken Europe the tropical and sultry mysteries, the arid heat and throbbing wetness of the Mexican Pacific coast, where D. and Nadine have fled, setting themselves up as respected Italian expatriate farmers secluded amidst the austere and dignified indios and the stone remnants of the graveyard empires that once exulted over torn-out, still-living hearts dedicated to the shadowy-but-visceral and primeval gods that held sovereignty over the oppressive heat, the slumbering volcanos, the turbulent storms and humming chords of lightning that threaten to burn all life to ashes. After a wearying journey, Daria manages to rejoin her old comrades—and to try to accept, as they have come to, that there can be lived a life—enjoyed a life—that is not in service to historic destiny, that doesn't require its own sacrifice, to shed its own blood, to work murderous means, all in the name of advancing the whole of society towards its date with a utopian perfection that—so the rational mind has decided—has to be the supreme meaning of life. Yet even in this simple, sweltering paradise, there must exist a serpent to tempt a modern day Adam and Eve—and the fruit of this particular tree of knowledge will impart an understanding that is immensely bittersweet.

This is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Unbelievable that it hadn't previously been translated into English; imperative that it be read now that it has been made so available. Serge is interested in human consciousness, the decisions that one must make about what constitutes the livable life, the desired life, about the utter importance of means in achieving an end, about the sheer destructive power of a mechanized and technological society, torn between a combative capitalism and communism that, in the end, may not actually be all that dissimilar. It is about belief and faith, the tortures of apostasy, the struggle to deal with the consequences of willingly abandoning one's service to a cause that is, of necessity, so much larger than oneself; it is about comradeship and friendship, the brutal tests visited upon the spirit by the calamity of war—and, especially, of the Earth itself, of the role and textures of nature in the modern age, her ofttimes tenuous, but undeniable, links with the evolutionary pathways of the human mind, and what, in the end, the fate may be of this oh-so-curious creature man, so eminently corruptible, killable, risible—and yet so easily worth every drop of agony wrung from the soul over his inscrutable existence, and so dearly important to the forking paths that, to the redoubtable Serge, must lead, in the end, through the doorway of hope into something truly, cosmically beautiful.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Monica (new)

Monica Good heavens when I feel the suns warmth on my face I don't think about this!

Kevin You write well, sir; an amazing review.

message 3: by Szplug (last edited Sep 01, 2011 10:28AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Szplug Hi, Kevin. I only now discovered your comment, but thanks for the kind words.

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