The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

This novel, written by the brilliant Bulgakov whose literary work was so stifled during the hellish and unbelievably destructive years that preceded the Second World War and the horrors of Stalinism in general (the use of which phrase is just about the most extreme example of understatement imaginable, given the sheer nastiness of what happened), is good but not an easy read for the native English speaker of today.

I read it in a translation, since I speak no Russian, by Michael Glenny. It is very good, and the style survives well through the process. There is a lot of what we would (now) call ‘magical realism’ in the book – dreams are described in detail, with the narrative of events interwoven, creating a strong sense of the humanity of the characters as they deal with terrifying and unpredictable events.

These events relate to the effects of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath on a middle class family in Kiev. We see the Germans come and go, we see the Bolsheviks approaching, we see the perfidy of the local leadership. All is mediated through the characters – there is no explanation of the politics and history; it is a story of humans in extraordinary circumstances.

I enjoyed it but it took me a while to get into it. And Russian or Central European names are unwieldly in translation. Maybe not to the same extent as some epic Russian novels, when the cast of characters can run to a couple of rather disconcerting pages at the beginning of a doorstep-sized book, but one does need to concentrate.

An interesting and intriguing book to remind us of a too frequently overlooked part of history.


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