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In the small set of America's best contemporary novelists, Vollmann is the perpetual comet. Every two years or so he flashes across the sky with another incredibly learned, incredibly written, incredibly long novel. Two years ago, with Argall, he easily bested John Barth in the writing of 17th-century prose while taking up the tired story of the settlement of Jamestown and making it absolutely riveting. His latest departs from his usual themes--the borders between natives and Westerners, or prostitutes and johns--to take on Central Europe in the 20th century. "The winged figures on the bridges of Berlin are now mostly flown, for certain things went wrong in Europe...." What went wrong is captured in profiles of real persons (Kathe Kollwitz, Kurt Gerstein, Dmitri Shostakovich, General Paulus and General Vlasov) as well as mythic personages (a shape-shifting Nazi communications officer and creatures from the German mythology Wagner incorporated into his operas). Operation Barbarossa--the German advance into Russia in 1941, and the subsequent German defeat at Stalingrad and Kursk--is central here, with the prewar and postwar scenes radiating out from it, as though the war were primary, not the nations engaged in it. The strongest chapter is a retelling of Kurt Gerstein's life; Gerstein was the SS officer who tried to warn the world about the concentration camps while working as the SS supply agent for the gas chambers. The weakest sections of the book are devoted to the love triangle between Shostakovich, Elena Konstantinovskaya and film director Roman Karmen. Throughout, Vollman develops counternarratives to memorialize those millions who paid the penalties of history. Few American writers infuse their writing with similar urgency.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
"We have a Motherland and they have a Fatherland. Their child is Europe Central," muses one of the many sly narrators in this grand matrix of paired stories about moments of truth during the most brutal conflict of World War II, the war between Russia and Germany. Following his landmark opus on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down (2003), Vollmann, a master of synthesis and an intense and compassionate writer, presents an epic inquiry into the nature of conscience and survival in catastrophic times. His guiding light is the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who managed to create works of profound elegiac beauty under the murderous censorship of Stalin's regime, and not only does Vollmann empathetically portray this controversial figure, he also emulates the rich drama of his music. In spite of the massiveness of this zealously researched creation (replete with 50 pages of notes), Europe Central is a work of compelling intimacy as Vollmann imagines the inner lives of individuals caught up in an orgy of hate, fear, and apocalyptic violence. Here are provocative portraits of the German artist Kathe Kollwitz; the revered Russian poet Anna Akhmatova; translator Elena Konstantinovskaya, whom Vollmann casts as the love of Shostakovich's tormented life; and the "spy for God," Kurt Gerstein, an SS officer who tries to tell the disbelieving world the truth about the Holocaust. Working, as is his wont, on a monumental scale that embodies the full complexity of the dilemmas and horrors he grapples with, Vollmann opens new portals onto a genocidal war never to be forgotten, and illuminates both the misery and beauty human beings engender. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.