Wednesday, August 18, 2010
From the shelves of the Paco library
I believe I may have touched on a couple of the works of Mikhail Bulgakov previously (his satirical sci-fi novella, The Fatal Eggs, and the comic gem Heart of a Dog). He is best known today for his novel, The Master and Margarita (which I have not read); but it is his first fictional work, The White Guard, that I want to take up today.
The action of the novel is set in Kiev (referred to only as “the City”) at the end of WWI. The Ukraine is in a state of political turmoil: the war is over, but such order as exists is due primarily to the presence of German troops who have not yet been demobilized; Czarist military units – consisting largely of cadets – represent the rapidly shrinking imperial element; outside of the city, Petlyura and his army of Ukrainian nationalists are closing in; and ominous tidings arrive from Moscow where the Bolsheviks have seized power. It is a remarkable and well-told story about the chaos that erupts when not only a government, but an entire society, are overthrown.
The events of all this turbulence are related primarily through their impact on the Turbin family. Two brothers, Alexei and Nikolta, are czarists, the former an army doctor, the latter a cadet corporal. They live with their sister Elena, whose husband, also an army officer, has departed – supposedly to link up with Denikin’s White Army approaching from the south, but in reality to flee Russia altogether. There are various artfully-drawn hangers-on, including a kind-hearted but hopelessly clumsy and socially awkward cousin who shows up at the house unexpectedly for a long visit - complete with several bulky trunks and a caged canary - just as Alexei stumbles in the door, half dead from a bullet wound.
Bulgakov uses the swirling changes, the dramatic alteration of individual and collective fortunes, to demonstrate both the strengths and the fallibilities of human beings in circumstances of social break-down, the enormous pressures turning some into spiritual diamonds and crushing others into dust. There are scenes of narrow escapes, of deeply moving kindness, of unquenchable hatred and truly mindless violence. And throughout all, there is the Turbin family, shaken to the core by the passing of the old world, and by the potential horror of the new world striving to be born, but never failing in their love for, and loyalty, to one another.
For those who have ever imagined what it’s like to go through a catastrophic social collapse – or for those who simply enjoy watching a brilliant author bring his fictional characters to life – you can hardly do better than read The White Guard.