Friday, September 15, 2006

Critic's Corner

The Bulletin, Brussels' weekly expat magazine, has just published my short review of a very long book, William T. Vollmann's Europe Central. You can't read Bulletin articles online, so I post my original version below (this way you can read it without antiquated English spellings!).

Europe Central
William T. Vollmann
Alma Books Ltd. (£12.99)
800 pages

Reviewed by Craig Winneker

Confronted with a clear moral choice in the face of overwhelming and pervasive evil – submit and have a chance to live, or do the right thing and most certainly die – what would you do?

This was the stark question unfortunately faced by many Europeans in the first half of the 20th century. We all know what most chose. In his astounding new book, Europe Central, William T. Vollmann, perhaps America’s greatest unknown author, looks at Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia before, during and immediately after World War II, and tries to come to grips with why.

Among the real-life characters he portrays are Soviet composer Dimitri Shostakovich, who struggled to stay true to his art even as Stalinism exerted unrelenting political pressure on him and his loved ones; Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, who commanded the German troops at Stalingrad and, against his better judgment, followed Hitler’s order to fight to the last man (but disobeyed the one dictating that he die rather than surrender); and SS ‘hygiene’ officer Kurt Gerstein, who, while participating in the mass killing of Jews in several concentration camps, secretly tried to alert a Swedish diplomat and the Catholic Church to the Holocaust as it was happening.

Also featured: Russian documentary filmmaker Roman Karmen, German painter and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz, Russian General Andrei Vlasov, unsuccessful Lenin assassin Fanya Kaplan, and the mysterious muse Elena Konstaninovskaya. (Had he waited another year to finish the book, Vollmann might have thrown in a sensitive German teenager drafted by the Waffen SS who would go on to win a Nobel Prize for Literature and self-appointed moral arbiter of post-war Germany, all the while concealing his true background. No doubt he would have provided a more revealing analysis than we’ll get from Günter Grass’ new autobiography.)

In a structure that recalls John Dos Passos’ monumental U.S.A. trilogy (written before, during and after World War I), Vollmann weaves fictional and real characters throughout a series of short stories, and uses intimate personal experience to punctuate historical sweep. In an extensive notes section, he documents his fabrications as meticulously as his accuracies.

Winner of the National Book Award for fiction, Europe Central has brought a smattering of long-overdue fame to Vollmann, a prolific and immensely gifted writer whose works typically inhabit the world’s seedier realms and explore its darker issues. (Before publishing Europe Central he managed to abridge his seven-volume, 3,300-page attempt to devise a moral calculus for violence, Rising Up and Rising Down, to a somewhat more portable 750 pages.)

Europe Central has been available on these shores since May, albeit with much less attractive cover art than the US edition, which featured a stunningly stylized 1935 German poster, ‘Deutschland, das Land der Musik’; the European edition, with its helmeted German soldier and overflying bombers, resembles a military comic book.

Like its British equivalent, the Booker Prize, a National Book Award (not to mention the universally glowing reviews Vollmann has earned for this and nearly all of his other works) usually ensures bestseller status. But Europe Central’s sheer size and daunting subject matter no doubt turn readers away. Have no fear – choose to read it.

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