"...then bands of agitators follow... calling themselves long-awaited liberators. Like swarms of locusts, they seep through the smallest cracks and infest villages and settlements."
With this description young Ivan Kulik, newly appointed village school headmaster, introduces the events of 1939 in Hlaby, his village in the Pinsk Marshes - a region straddling the border between Ukraine in the south and Belorussia in the north. What follows is an extraordinary story, a social portrait of a community struggling to survive in the face of constantly mounting and increasingly violent Soviet interference in the lives of the villagers. By focusing on one village and a limited group of primary characters, Theodore Odrach takes the historical facts onto a very personal and intricate level, building empathy and understanding in the reader who is captivated early on and will remain engaged until the end of the novel and beyond.
Odrach's characters are lively and personable, realistically captured in their daily lives and their new, at times conflicting, emotions. Many are torn between willingness to collaborate with the occupiers, anticipating personal advantage within a Soviet system, or maintaining a more or less neutral attitude, risking being labelled nationalist or even traitor, thereby endangering their livelihood and even survival. As the harassment and brutal attacks multiply, and random arrests, disappearances and arbitrary killings are witnessed more frequently, ignoring reality is almost impossible. Propaganda and reality could not be further apart. Even those, like Ivan Kulik, who are trying to maintain some level of normalcy in the school and the village, have to fear being called for "an interview" at the notorious Zovty prison of the NKVD [the Soviet Secret Police], in Pinsk. Ivan, who is as much chronicler of the events as active participant, has to confront his own suspicions: can he trust even his few friends like Sergei? Is the chatty neighbour or colleague an agent provocateur waiting to report him? Will his faultless "proletarian credentials" protect him from disappearing in Zovty prison or being sent to a concentration camp in Siberia?
For the young women in particular, embracing the "modern" Russian way can lead to unforeseen consequences. Clearly exploiting the benefits of the new system is Dounia Avdeevna. While her machinations read like light relief, the author's message is serious. The primary female character, however, is Marusia, the girl that raises romantic feelings in Ivan. She is rejecting any advances by him, this 'moujik' (peasant) who prefers to speak Ukrainian rather than Russian (which he speaks more fluently than she does). He is also better educated than she is... Odrach conveys the conflicts in the girl's mind admirably, and, mostly, with a lovely ironic touch. Nonetheless, for me one of the most chilling scenes is Marusia's reaction to receiving a beautiful winter coat as a gift - and discovering the label in its collar...
The brutal occupation of the Pinsk Marshes, so empathically evoked by Odrach, has to be understood against the historical context and its unique geographic characteristics. A strategically important region for the Soviet Union, it had been under Polish control until its annexation by the Red Army in September 1939. Its deep forests, broken up by farmland and pastures with isolated villages scattered in the landscape and, most importantly, the river with its large flood plains had provided natural barriers from unwanted intruders. Culturally, the population's identity was rooted in their Ukrainian language. As Odrach expertly illustrates, the region's "integration" into Byelorussia meant much more for the villagers than the compulsory introduction of the Byelorussian and Russian languages: it represented the denigration of their own language and culture and a rejection of their important role in the wider Russian and Slavic historical context. I found it fascinating how Odrach uses the language conflict also as an illustration of social tensions within the community. Some characters, such as the Russian-speaking apparatchiks, when irritated or angry, slip back into their native Ukrainian without noticing ' or they do, losing more than their argument.
I found it especially fascinating how Odrach illustrates the social tensions in the community through the language issue. Some characters, such as the Russian-speaking apparatchiks, when irritated or angry, slip back into their native Ukrainian without noticing - or they do, losing more than their argument.
WAVE OF TERROR is without doubt closely based on the author's personal experiences. Odrach has beautifully fictionalized what he knew and lived through and presented it in a way that readers from everywhere can relate to the individuals, their lives, hopes and struggles. He has done even more than that. With his nuanced approach he has brought to light a mostly unknown tragedy of a community of a specific region that stand representative for the many, many victims of Stalin's Sovietization campaign with the reign of terror suffered by communities with different cultural and linguistic identities.
Theodore Odrach escaped from the Soviet Union and eventually immigrated to Canada in 1953. Since then, until his untimely death in 1964, he used every spare moment to write - not only this novel but a substantial body of works. For me, Odrach's writing stands on its own and does not need any suggestion for literary influences. However, I did find important parallels in terms of theme and approach between Odrach's novel and 2009 Nobel laureate Herta Müller. Both authors have fictionalized the personally experienced terror regimes seen from the perspective of a specific linguistic background. WAVE OF TERROR was published in Ukrainian in 1973 and has only recently become available in English thanks to the great efforts of his daughter Erma, who had to enter the depth of the Ukrainian language and culture to convey her father's words and meaning. She has done so beautifully and convincingly. [Friederike Knabe]
on May 15, 2013
Hlaby, a forgotten village in the Pinsk Marshes, a forgotten corner of Ukrania. It would seem to be a good place to escape the turmoil caused by the occupying Russians.
The local people have endured Polish occupation and just when they think they’ve adjusted to being forced to adopt their way of life, the Russians have trampled into the country, expecting everyone to do an about-turn and take on their form of doing things, not the least of which is learn a new language. Even then, there is confusion as to whether it should be Belarus, (not the logical choice of Ukranian, since that is where the village is found), or the language of the governing country, Russian. And God help anyone who questions these decisions. Well, maybe not God, as religion has been banned, too.
Theodore Odrach’s book, Wave of Terror, examines this pervading feeling of confusion and fear. The book has been compared to Chekhov’s writing and I agree for example, with the similarity in style where the plot is not as important as showing the feelings of the characters, their response to this situation. Odrach gives finely detailed illustrations of their emotions and not just of the local people, but of the perpetrators of this misery, too, with their greed, ambition and delight in their power and control.
I found it interesting that Odrach shows how the regime changed the way people related to each other. Fear and distrust mean that you behave and respond differently in the day-to-day contact with neighbours, friends, workmates, etc. An example is where the main character, Ivan Kulik, falls in love with a girl who, completely opposite to him, openly embraces the new regime, even though her attempts at speaking Russian are ridiculous. Ivan cannot relax and speak freely with her, being continually worried about whether she could secretly be an informer. The constant tension of being unsure of everyone, eventually takes its toll.
I expected it to be heavy going, but was surprised that the story is an enjoyable read, even if the subject is quite strong. Although the plot is secondary to showing the impact on people’s lives and relationships, there are some truly powerful scenes. It is beautifully written, laced with wonderful descriptions: you really feel the cold, drab misery of the Pinsk Marshes. Well-paced, never getting bogged down, offering an insight into the history of a little-known part of the world that has since only become famous due to the nearby disaster in Chernobyl. A story that left an impression on me and one of the few books that I would love to read again.
by Simon Hugh Wheeler, author of Loosely Translated.
*Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review purposes.
on July 5, 2011
Wave of Terror by Theodore Odrach (translated by Erma Odrach) is a quiet, vivid book that creeps up on you with a subtle, powerful voice. It is a small glimpse into a harsh past, but still shows the very human spirit that endures.
The novel tells the story of Ivan Kulik, a school master in the Pinsk Marshes, Belarus at the time of the Soviet takeover of that area. It chronicles his experiences and those of his friends and neighbours as the Soviet machine slowly invades and insidiously reorders their lives.
Wave of Terror is a literary novel, not my usual choice in a book, but I liked reading the rich story set against the backdrop of Soviet expansion. The characters are old-world, often quirky or outspoken and are the different voices for the underlying political narrative. The plotline is woven with the changing, brutal politics of the day, but the author and translator never overwhelm the human aspect. The characters lives continue, even when their neighbours disappear or are killed.
The book has an almost surreal aspect to it, which I think lends to the flavour of the reading experience and truly immerses the reader in the time period of the novel. And the ending is perfect, leaving you wondering and yet still having hope for Ivan.
A fabulous book that is a must read.
on July 12, 2009
Everyday life under Stalin is detailed. The year is 1939 and the Red Army has just seized a small town in Belorussia. It is not long before atrocities begin to occur, where people are shot dead in the streets, imprisoned, or sent off to slave labor camps. There is no escape for the common citizen and there is mistrust everywhere. The story centers around the young schoolteacher, Ivan Kulik, and it is through his eyes that we witness a world turned upside down. But as horrific as life under Stalin has become, the book is not devoid of humor. Dounia Avdeevna, the oversized, oversexed fishmonger turned schoolteacher uses her womanly charms to work the system and to keep two Soviet officials under her thumb. She is hilarious and pathetic both at the same time and probably deserves her own book. Tragic and humorous, Wave of Terror is obviously a part of the author's world, one he knows only too well. It will leave you wanting more.
on August 17, 2010
Wave of Terror is one of those books I wouldn't typically pick up. But I am so glad I did. Based in Russian in the 40's. Odrach's bare writing style and his brilliant characterization gently pulls you in and refuses to let go. His gentle humour lightens what could be a very dark story, and the accuracy in which he depicts life and the people is breathtaking. As a reader, I could feel the cold winter on my skin, smell the country air, and I marvelled at the hope within the people of this country in such a dismal time; hope that no amount of terror could break down.
Translated by his daughter Erma, Wave is an important book, definitely worth spending a few hours with. I hope that we get to see more of this Canadian author's previous writing, and so sad that he is no longer around to gift us with more of his work.