10 November 2010

The Stalin Front (Gert Ledig)

The Stalin Front, also published as The Stalin Organ, by Gert Ledig (1921-1999) is a novel about Russo-German fighting during World War II. It was first published in German in 1955, sixteen years after the author volunteered in the army. The English translation by Michael Hofmann appeared only recently in 2004. The novel constitutes Ledig's graphic reminiscences of the war. Its imagery brings to my mind recent war films like Saving Private Ryan by Steven Spielberg and The Thin Red Line by Terrence Malick.

The novelist must have an acute memory to be able to indelibly register such brutal and cruel moments of war - but what else to expect of bloody wars - or else an abnormal capacity to absorb the violence. The mess and chaos are sustained throughout the entire book in a visceral, realistic, and natural prose style. Consider the opening scenes in the prologue:

The Lance-Corporal couldn't turn in his grave, because he didn't have one. Some three versts from Podrova, forty versts south of Leningrad, he had been caught in a salvo of rockets, been thrown up in the air, and with severed hands and head dangling, been impaled on the skeletal branches of what once had been a tree.

   The NCO who was writhing on the ground with a piece of shrapnel in his belly, had no idea what was keeping his machine-gunner. It didn't occur to him to look up. He had his hands full with himself.

Such is the cinematic power of Ledig's novel that the words paint battle scenes in color, albeit the gray and brown and black colors of smoking tanks, muddy fields, and filthy uniforms, and the deep red color of blood spurting like merry fountains. More than reading a shooting script or screenplay, the reader seems to be watching the whole thing unfold on the big screen. The sound effects are deafening; the chamber music is literally absent; the editing is sharply executed. The pauses and the silences in between the hail of bullets do not give respite to the viewer. Instead they provoke a heightened sense of danger. The novel replicates the dread, boredom, over-fatigue, and nervous breakdown in a large modern scale war.

The story follows a group of soldiers as they try to either defend their position in the front or to attack the enemy. The "Stalin organ" refers to the automatic weapon (multiple rocket launcher) used by the Russian side to efficiently wipe out the Germans. Ledig picks up both points of view of the Russian and German soldiers that the reader is sometimes confused which side he is reading about. Eventually it dawns on us that it doesn't matter whether the story told is that of the German or the Russian side. Humanity has the same face and every one is interchangeable. Every man is an everyman whose life is readily extinguished by a bullet or bayonet.

The story is broken into short chapters that show the characters in the midst of combat and deliberating moral choices that test and define their physical and moral resilience. The characters, instead of being called by their names, are often reduced to their ranks (i.e., the Lance-Corporal, the Runner, the Sergeant, the Major, the Captain). Michael Hoffman, the translator of the novel from the German, mentioned in his introduction that he purposely capitalized the ranks of the characters to make them more distinct from each other. This stylistic choice of substituting ranks to names allows for easy recognition of the characters. One can imagine the difficulty of trying to ascertain the identities of soldiers through all the chaos and wasteland. This choice of the translator, however, may have undermined Ledig's apparent vision of the universality of men. That, again, every man is everyone in war, and each soldier (the lance-corporal, the runner, the sergeant, the major, the captain) slides into anonymity in the face of annihilation. Each may be acting according to his rank, with winning the war as the primary objective, but this is superseded by a more pressing individual concern, which is the concern of all: to survive, to preserve one's critically endangered life.

I bought this book on the strength of W. G. Sebald's blurb at the back of the NYRB edition. The blurb is taken from Sebald's essay "Air War and Literature," from the book On the Natural History of Destruction. Sebald's essay takes to task the postwar German writers for failing to record the destruction wrought by wars. For Sebald, the books of Ledig, as well as that of Heinrich Böll and Peter Weiss, among others, are a rare exception to this apparent defect in the German letters. Sebald champions the kind of novels that speak plainly and precisely, and with unpretentious objectivity, as opposed to novels full of "aesthetic or pseudo-aesthetic effects." He favors the concrete and documentary style of writing over the abstract and imaginary. For Sebald, accounts of suffering must be commensurate to the magnitude of the human loss; these are the kind of novels worth writing about in the face of total destruction.

What particularly sets Ledig's first novel apart from other stories of modern war and conflict is its own sense of the poetic injustice of men fighting fellow men, its cast-iron sense of irony, and its non-compromised portrayal of a "natural history of destruction." The natural history of war, in its literal sense, can pertain to a respect for Nature and the idea of war as a direct assault against it. This is achieved through poetic engagement with the natural world and the senseless plight of human beings in this theater. One can think of the images of the flowing grass and the wildlife in The Thin Red Line, but with less gratuitous intent as the images are part of or combined in the action. The insects and the trees have their own cameo roles in the novel:

   As soon as he entered the wood, he felt alone. The brush, the birch trunks - everything was silent. The log-road, built by Russian soldiers who had long since died of starvation or been shot, swayed silently underfoot. A swarm of mosquitoes danced over a dead body in the murky puddle in the clearing. A beetle in shining armour dragged a blade of grass across the path. A ring of scorched grass, an uprooted tree and a pile of broken boughs indicated that death had been at work, days previously, just yesterday, or even a matter of hours ago. A few sunbeams managed to break through the leaves and reach the ground. . . .
Men, together with their misplaced intelligence, play their tragic roles in theaters of war: to fight the other side to the death. The war rages on while, all around the very brave and noble and heroic combatants, millions of other species - lowly plants and animals - get on with their lives. Whether they are uprooted or remain rooted to the spot, the trees in the forest stand at attention in their precarious positions, awaiting their decimation. Yet the natural world is implacable in the face of material and human loss - the millions of human lives lost.

In The Stalin Front, wars are shown as machines that reduce humanity and nature into useless objects. Wars are shown for what in the first place they amount to: lost causes. The novel builds an argument for literature as a corrective to this dark history. It asks the same question that the purveyors of war never get to answer sufficiently. Why, after the curtain falls on these theaters of the past, do people today still want to engage in the same acts of destruction?

I read this book as part of the ongoing NYRB Reading Week (7-13 November 2010). This week of reading and reviewing great books is spearheaded by Honey at Coffespoons and Mrs. B at The Literary Stew. This is also part of the "NYRB Reading Plan" that I made back in January, in which I aimed to read at least 5 books published by NYRB this year. This is the 3rd NYRB book I read, after The Engagement by Georges Simenon and Poem Strip by Dino Buzzati.


  1. This sounds like a harrowing read but interesting too. That's what I love about NYRB books...there's so much diversity in all their choices. Thanks for joining NYRB Reading Week. Hope you have more reviews coming up.

  2. Indeed it is, Mrs. B. I love how NYRB publish books that were neglected in its time.

    I'm not sure if I can finish one more book in time. I'm currently reading Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars.

  3. Hi, Rise! Although I have no taste for war movies, I do enjoy reading war novels and records of battle. I think it was reading the Iliad that got me going. Anyway, I, too, like how war literature continually questions the morality of war and man's actions in it. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention. Will keep an eye out for it. And thank you for joining the NYRB Reading week.:)

  4. Thanks to you and Mrs. B for organizing a great readalong. I already look forward to next year's edition.

  5. Rise, I appreciate your points about the "cinematic" nature of Ledig's prose (something I hadn't really considered before) and about how good he is at sowing confusion in the reader's mind about which "side" he is talking about at various points in the novel (this was an effect I really came to appreciate). I haven't read Hofmann's intro yet, but I look forward to discovering either there or elsewhere what Ledig thought about the commercial possibilities for his novel. His aims would have had to have been entirely "artistic" or didactic and not commercial, don't you think?

  6. Yes to your question, Richard. He's like Rulfo in which he produced books in only a very short period of time (2 or 3 years) and then disappeared from the literary scene. I think he wanted to tell a version of the story in his own way and had nothing more to add because he was already satisfied with its aesthetic.

    I also wanted to read Payback which supposedly had a unique perspective on aerial bombings. It was not picked up on by NYRB or any publisher in the US.

  7. I liked your review very much and have included it n my post too now.
    Cinematic is apt. It has strong imagery.

  8. Thanks, Caroline. I'm eager to know what's in store for 2013 Lit&War Readalong.