The Pick - Life and Fate

September 15, 2011

Credit: BBC/Estate of Vasily Grossman
First-hand experience: Vasily Grossman's manuscript was "arrested"

Life and Fate

BBC Radio 4

The Archers is sacrosanct. But from Sunday 18 September until a week later, BBC Radio 4 is giving over all its other drama slots to a 13-part, 8-hour dramatisation, with an all-star cast, of Vasily Grossman's epic novel Life and Fate.

It starts in relative calm. It is October 1942 and nuclear physicist Viktor Shtrum (Kenneth Branagh) has been evacuated from Moscow to Kazan, with his wife Lyuda (Greta Scacchi), mother-in-law and moody teenage daughter. Yet their family life is shot through with tensions. Lyuda is consumed by grief for her soldier son Tolya, while Viktor is thrilled by research that has opened up a whole new subatomic world "like virgin snow, untouched and stretching to the farthest north" and is becoming increasingly intimate with the wife of a colleague. The fate of Viktor's mother also hangs over them.

The short second episode turns tragic as it reveals what has happened to her. Caught behind enemy lines in 1941, Anna Semyonovna (Janet Suzman) writes a letter to her son Viktor describing an early episode of Nazi anti-Jewish persecution in the Ukraine, which left 12,000 dead and, she fears, put an end to a "whole noisy world of bearded, anxious fathers and shrewd grandmothers who bake honey-cakes".

Grossman was a star reporter with the Red Army, who witnessed the worst of the battle of Stalingrad and the liberation of the extermination camp at Treblinka. He also had deep first-hand experience of the horrors of life under Stalin: the famines, the sloganeering, the constant denunciations, the leading dignitaries suddenly declared "enemies of the state", the passing remarks or jokes that led to decades of imprisonment, and the moral compromises inevitably required of ambitious writers and scientists.

All this comes together in Life and Fate, a novel with more than 1,000 named characters ranging from leading historical figures to the humblest foot soldiers, although many of the most important are relatives of Viktor and Lyuda. Taking advantage of the post-Stalin "thaw", Grossman submitted it for publication in 1960. The strong parallels between Nazism and Communism made it politically unacceptable and one of only two cases in Soviet history where a book was "arrested" and the author left unharmed. Fortunately, he had kept hidden copies, which were microfilmed and eventually published to great acclaim in 1980.

Even over 8 hours, adapters Jonathan Myerson and Mike Walker, and director Alison Hindell, have had to excise many major plot strands. Yet, with vivid episodes set in state bureaucracies, scientific institutes, bombed-out buildings, field hospitals, labour camps and all the way into the gas chambers, they have still created a bleak but extraordinarily compelling panorama of ordinary people caught up in the dark heart of the 20th century.

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