Gert Ledig's The Stalin Front (Die Stalinorgel translated by Michael Hoffmann) is one of those books I can say I am happy to have read, but it's not one that I can say I 'enjoyed' exactly. It is a wholly unsentimental and at times graphic view of World War II. It's an interesting novel in that it feels both stripped down in the telling of the story, yet in no way slight. In his introduction the translator notes how carefully plotted and controlled it is. The events that take place occur over what feels like just a day or so. The story takes place in 1942 not far from Leningrad as the Germans and Russians battle over a piece of land that both tenaciously try and hold at a high cost of man and machine. In this story man is likened to and most probably was in reality treated as a machine.
What the story lacks in personal detail, the characters being mostly unnamed, it makes up for in brutal descriptions of life in the trenches and on the battlefield. I found this aspect of the novel surprising since I thought trench warfare came and went with WWI, which shows how little I really know about the Second World War. And while I found the use of ranks in describing the characters a little disorienting (always forgetting just which side the captain was on and which the major) it did help not knowing too much about the men. I think it would have been a little agonizing to become too attached to them knowing the horrific conditions under which these men fought. It made for sobering reading realizing that this is in fact what it must have been like as Ledig himself fought on the Eastern Front. He knew well of which he wrote.
The story opens with a German soldier, the Runner, taking messages back and forth between officers. It's a dangerous and deadly job and one he wants to be well rid of, barely escaping with his life each time he arrives at his destination. He's the reader's eyes. Along the way he's shot at and narrowly misses bombs. He sees the scarred landscape and bodies flung on wires and in the mud. And they are at this point just bodies. It's hard to imagine them as they once were. Men. As the battle for the land gears up and continues the scene shifts back and forth between Germans and Russians. And slowly the characters come into focus with small teasers dropped into the story of the lives they once lead. One officer has just lost his wife and child in a bombing raid. Another thinks of his lover, she being a nurse and not so far away from the fighting.
In the midst of the battle men are killed and captured, and soon each side has prisoners. The Germans are trapped by the Russians, encircled but they refuse to give up and continue their bombardment. Trapped they may be but their barrage of bombs inflicts just as many casualties and takes out the Russian tanks. Little is lost or gained by way of land but most certainly in terms of lives. And Ledig describes it all so matter of factly.
What strikes me most about reading this is how well he captures the senselessness and more so, the absurdity, that war is. The Runner asks to be relieved of his duty and return to the trenches (no doubt having a better chance of surviving--imagine!), but the officer in charge can't bring himself to make the order. It's all a catch-22. One simple order that can't or won't be made. The German high command won't issue orders for more troops or fire power, surely the men are fine and and can continue on, until they themselves are bombed. And then the higher ranking officer leaves in his pajamas for safer ground. And most distressing, an infantryman is charged with desertion because he fails to fight back (he being an only son who must take care of his elderly mother) and must face the ultimate punishment--death, when most of the men would and do willingly desert as well. But orders are orders and they must be followed. Whatever the cost.
The Stalin Front is an impressive story for what it accomplishes. It was published in 1955 after having been rejected by fifty publishers and surprised many by becoming a success. It was translated into a number of other languages, but eventually faded away into obscurity. Apparently Ledig was aware that his books (he also wrote Payback about a 1944 bombing raid of an unnamed German city) were about to enjoy a revival but he died in 1999 before it happened. I'd like to read his other book but think it best to save it for a sunnier time of year.
You can read Caroline's thoughts on the book here, as well she has linked to a number of other reviews. Next up is Michael Herr's Dispatches about the Vietnam War, and a "classic of war reportage". I'm already looking forward to next year's list of books for the 2013 Literature and War Readalong and have started getting hold of copies to have on hand.