National Book Award, Fiction, 2005 In this magnificent work of fiction, William T. Vollmann turns his trenchant eye to the authoritarian cultures of Germany and the USSR in the 20th century.Assembling a composite portrait of these two warring leviathans and the terrible age they defined, the narrative intertwines experiences both real and fictional: a young German who joins the SS to expose its crimes, two generals who collaborate with the enemy for different reasons, the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich laboring under Stalinist oppression. Through these and other lives, Vollmann offers a daring and mesmerizing perspective on human actions during wartime.
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This is a very fine audio book - well read and engrossing. I have given it one less star than the ultimate because you cannot listen to a book like this will all the concentration necesary.
Long, sometimes repetative, often messmerizing - Europe Central tells the story of men and women caught up in the greatest struggle of the 20th century - the struggle of the individual to survive in a dictatorial world.
Each of the central characters are given his or her own section - book length parts - to tell thier stories. The Russian composer D. Shostakovich is the spine of the book. His story is a primer on how an artist survives in sea of repression: learn to hold your breath under water. Others make significant appearances including General Paulus in a haunting set peice on the Battle of Stalingrad. The "Sleepwalker" (Hitler) and his Russian counterpart - Stalin - pervade the work as they did the first half of the 20th century - and still influence how the world operates.
This book is a lenghty journey - you will not be the same at its end as you were at its start. Isn't that what great literature is all about?
"We have a Motherland and they have a Fatherland. Their child is Europe Central." ― William T. Vollmann, Europe Central
This book reminds me of some mad Nazi experiment (or Soviet torture) grafting the madness of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and the darkness of Littell's The Kindly Ones. From the first chapter it grabs you grotesquely by the balls and just won't let go. Vollmann wants to hear you scream and then wants to write the score of your scream, the ghost notes of your warped night tremors.
The spine, the backbone, of this novel is woven the life/stories/stutters of Dmitry Shostakovich (yes THAT Shostakovich) writing his opus of lust, his opus of war, his opus of death. Fighting, passively, always passively against the crushing weight of Soviet oppression. The more the institution would grind on him, push him down, the more his art would squirt out. Art finds a way. There is the love triangle between Shostakovich and Elena Konstantinovskaya and Roman Karmen. This is Vollmann bending history to fit his novel. He isn't trying for close. He isn't aiming for clarity. He is composing with this novel. He is grooving.
The way I floated with this novel was to imagine it as a giant expressionist painting with Shostakovich in the center (or, perhaps, a symphony or musical development? Others have said yes, so I'd recommending reading their reviews if you prefer a symphony to an expressionist painting). It is full of demons and parables. Full of Totenkopfverbändes decorated with rubies, snow, skeletons, zombies, bombs and planes. There are mass graves and one can get quickly lost in death and the cold. There is a certain direction, only because time and history both have a direction, to the painting. It is scrolling left to right. But reading Vollmann is not a journey of art. It is a dream, a nightmare. It is a primal scream trying to clear out the cobwebs of the 20th century. It is Hieronymus Bosch's Purgatory, Hell, and all three panels of the triptych Garden of Earthly Delights sewn together with teeth, hair, and cobwebs and repainted by a German Expressionist or Soviet "nonconformist" artist.
'Europe Central' isn't history, but history isn't history. When so many people were killed, buried, burned -- we lose all sense of identity and truth. In Central Europe/Europe Central during that period right before, during, and after WWII myth seems almost as appropriate as any official history. The demons that whistle to you at night are just as convincing as the frozen chickens of day.
Again, I'm trying to wrap my head around it all. It is crazy. I am crazy. Two of the quotes from the book that helped me the most were:
"According to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, our planet's most pronounced topographical features compromise an approximate mirror image of the crust's underside. The steppes of the Ukraine thus roof the crating platforms which replicates them, while the Ural Mountains not only project into the sky, but in equal measure stab down like gabblers trained upon the magma on which our contest uneasily slither. To me, the thought that this world is doubled within its own red, liquid hell is a profoundly unnerving one. Chaos seethes beneath my feet" (page 694).
“Most literary critics agree that fiction cannot be reduced to mere falsehood. Well-crafted protagonists come to life, pornography causes orgasms, and the pretense that life is what we want it to be may conceivably bring about the desired condition. Hence religious parables, socialist realism, Nazi propaganda. And if this story likewise crawls with reactionary supernaturalism, that might be because its author longs to see letters scuttling across ceilings, cautiously beginning to reify themselves into angels. For if they could only do that, then why not us?” (27).
I will end this now, before I get swallowed up again by Vollmann's Airlift Idylls and Steel in Motion one more time and fail to find my way to the surface again. One note on the audio. It would have been perfect, but there were just a bit too many edits/corrections in the finished audiobook. A word was replaced, pronounced, etc., by a different reader (or a different sounding reader). It was a bit distracting.