Saturday, December 4, 2010

Book Review: 'The Unforgiving Years' by Victor Serge

Victor Serge (1890-1947)

Unforgiving Years (1946)

341 pages

This is a historical novel about spies who begin to doubt their cause and end up paranoid of their own thoughts and their own colleagues. The skills that have made them effective as spies --- discovering others secrets and hidden plots --- become prisons in which they enclose themselves and their thoughts, as everyone becomes a potential enemy in their fight to keep their own organization from first discovering their mental mutiny and eventually, when it is discovered, from tracking them down and killing them.

The spies work for the Soviet Union, and the time is just before, during  and just after WW II. The book is divided into four parts. It focuses on two spies in particular, D, whose story opens and closes the book, and his fried Daria, whose story makes up the middle two sections, until she finally meets up with D in the final section. These two represent those in the Soviet Union who come out of Lenin's revolution as true believers, certain that they are part of the vanguard that will lead to a new world order for mankind, that will be a better place. As they watch Stalin's purges of the old guard, however, and the political and economic developments in the Soviet Union, they slowly become disillusioned, and finally decide to drop out of their roles as spies and disappear, knowing that they will most likely be hunted down and killed by the organization that they had so strongly believed in.

The first section takes place in pre-WW II Paris, and describes the 'coming out' and escape of a spy named D. As the novel opens, D has sent a letter to his chief saying that he is withdrawing from the organization. He knows he has very little time to disappear, before the letter is read and they come after him. He doesn't know exactly how long, and from the very first lines the tension builds quickly, as he takes three taxis to get to his destination, just to be able to see if someone is following him. When he tell his secretary (who knows nothing of his actual work) that he is going to Strasbourg, and, a moment later, this mixes it up and says 'Mulhouse', he immediately become suspicious, since this is a code for 'watch out', known only be a few. He spends the next several minutes tensely quizzing her, trying to not make it apparent, until he convinces himself that it is an honest mistake.

The second and third sections deal with Daria, of her time first in Stalingrad during the German siege and then undercover in Berlin as the Allies are encircling and strangling the city. In both cases the story is as much about the people trying to survive when the world has collapsed around them as it is about her reaction to the devastation and senselessness. By the end of her time in Berlin, in the days after the city's surrender, she has decided to leave the organization, and search out and join D.

The fourth, and final, section is Daria's trip to find D, who she discovers in Mexico, and their reunion, with a maybe-not-so surprising ending.

The novel has periods of tense action mixed with long soliloquies by the characters, particular D and Daria, but also others, as they try to make sense of the crumbling world around them, trying to keep up the fight in the war even as they are uncertain whether they will not be swept up in the expanding sweep of Stalin's purges.

According to the introduction, and sources such as some of the links on the right had side of this page, Serge was born to Russian parents in Belgium, as his anti-czarist, expelled parents moved around Europe. He eventually went to Russia in 1919 and joined the revolution. Over the next 25 or so years, until his death, he gradually became disillusioned with the revolution, and, in his final years, living penniless in different capitals in Western Europe was 'hounded by Stalinist agents.'

Read quotes from this book

Other reviews / information:
Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic

Eric Ormsby, The NY Sun

NYRB (publisher)

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