Saturday, February 6, 2016

All Night Long

How did I get to a somewhat hackneyed Erskine Caldwell novel about Russian partisans in World War Two?  Via H-War, of course!  The H-lists started in the dawn of the Internet age, listservs on various topics where academics (mostly historians) might ask questions of one another, get teaching and research ideas, advertise conferences and journal articles, and so on.  I signed up for H-War a billion years ago, and then it seemed to vanish, only to start populating my inbox again a couple of years ago.

Anyway, a couple of months ago someone had a thread on novels about unconventional warfare, and the works cited sounded interesting so I sought some of them out.  (Side benefit of doing a deep-ish literary dive:  you don't have to buy it if you have access to Widener Library, and you might end up with a first edition that was last checked out in 1973 or something like that, which is pretty cool.)

Caldwell is best known as a chronicler of the down-and-out Depression-era South, but he spent time as a correspondent in the Soviet Union during the Second World War, and wrote several books about and inspired by the experience.  All Night Long:  A Novel of Guerilla Warfare in Russia (1942:  Duell, Sloan and Pearce) is exactly what it says:  a fictionalized account of partisan efforts in Russia, against the invading German army during the Second World War.  Set against the story of husband and wife Sergei and Natasha, All Night Long is essentially a litany of death and destruction, both sides determined to subdue or repel the other by any means necessary.  Over the course of the book, Sergei makes his way to the partisans, with whom he fights fearlessly, causing great destruction to the local German forces.  Natasha was to meet him at the partisan camp, but gets delayed, and Sergei must make hard choices when the time comes to rescue her.

It is hard to imagine a world like this one, where one act by a villager could lead to the devastation of an entire town, but Caldwell does his best to make you understand.  In one scene, Sergei and his comrade Fyodor come upon a village that was destroyed, along with its entire population, in retaliation for an act of sabotage.  Pages 159-166 are an extended description of the burned village, complete with the expected charred remains and "blackened chimneys jutting like weather-stained tombstones from the scarred earth" but somehow made more horrifically human with the "stiff and swollen carcasses of horses and cows," the charred remains of beds, tables, and chairs, the wrecked and burned tanks and trucks, and a large tank simply standing on end down one street.  The scene reads almost like a movie script, so vivid are details like "the sign, which once proclaimed the existence of a headquarters unit, lay beside a staff car which still contained the black fire-shrunken bodies of four Germans who had not been able to escape a final assault by the guerillas."  The citizens who lived here were all executed and the trench holding their bodies is filled with snowmelt, blood, and the "floating swollen grey bodies of field mice."  Just out of town, Sergei and Fyodor come upon the nude body of a young girl, terribly abused, lying in a wheat field.  (159-66)  I don't think Caldwell was really piling on here.  Could Sherman have imagined this hell?

Written in 1942, All Night Long unabashedly takes the side of our then-friends the Russians.  Every Russian character is noble and sacrificing, lean and windburned, strong and dedicated, the very embodiment of the propaganda posters as a friend suggested recently.  The Germans are either ignorant youth or raping, pillaging, murdering Nazis.  I don't necessarily disagree with this characterization.  The Nazis considered Russians sub-humans, barely a step above Jews and other degenerates, and Nazi depredations over the course of their ultimately disastrous campaign in the East are well-documented.

But, but.  Also well-documented is the fury unleashed on German citizens as Soviet soldiers made their way into that country in 1945.  You can say the Germans deserved it, and you can say that the Russians were not innocent of their own crimes committed in the name of war.  You'd both be right.  Neither side would win any humanitarian awards.

Still, in his zeal to make his point, or perhaps to prove authenticity, Caldwell lays it on a bit thick.  There is the incredibly awkward use of transliterated Russian words like Nemetski (German) or Tovarish (comrade).  Everyone sits around saying  things like "There's nobody more cruel than a Nemetski."  (I don't have the page reference for this one, but you could find a similar reference on just about every other page.)  And the characters are straight out of Central Casting:  Sergei Mikhailovich Korokov is "a tractor driver from the Lenin Collective Farm" (57) and Natasha his young and spirited wife, with golden blond hair cascading like a waterfall.  Sergei's comrade Fyodor lost his wife and daughter in a ghastly attack by the Germans so is hell-bent on revenge, and of course there is young Vladimir, who wants nothing more than to fight with the partisans.  (You know that ends up.)  A lot of potatoes and cabbage soup are cooked.

"I don't understand why the Nemetskies are like this," Fyodor insisted.  "Why must they always be killing our women?  Do they do this to their own women?"  He paused and looked off across the field.  "Only degenerates would come to our country and do such things.  You would expect it of savages, or of wild animals, but human beings don't rape and murder unless they're insane or -"
 "Or Nemetskies," Sergei broke in.
 "Or Nemetskies," Fyodor nodded.  (165)

Or Russians in Berlin.

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