Ben Douglass is an old grumpy white guy who writes poems, novels, reviews, essays, and short fictions, for his own amusement and the amusement of others.
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[The Quiet in the Land. Toews, Richard. Steppenwolf Publishing. 2017. 258 pages. ISBN: 9-781978-381988]
This is a tough story to read. It is a tale of unspeakable horror of being a German Mennonite youth during the dark days preceding the Russian Revolution of 1917 and after. A sweeping panorama of historical fiction that is reminiscent of Tolstoy and Solzhenitzyn.
Summary: Johann learns from an early age what his father and village Elders practice is quite different from the teachings of the Mennonite Church and the teachings of Christ. He escapes to the river to fish and to dream. He finds himself obsessing about why the Russian peasants in the village across the river are hated by his own people and simply treated as beasts of burden. He soon meets a new friend, Piotra, a peasant from the Russian village, who provokes him into action for revolutionary change.
As this friendship between the boys grow, and then falters miserably, Johann becomes a witness to and complicit in the gruesome butchery of a factory owner's wife and son by a group of young anarchists, led by Piotra.
Later, Johann and his brother David join the army as ambulance corpsmen and go to the Prussian front. Johann is severely injured and spends six weeks in a field hospital, then discharged from service and told to find his way back home.
After convalescing at home awhile, Johann goes to Moscow to study medicine at the University. He changes his name and creates a Russian persona as "Ivan Sholokhov." The times were not good for anyone confused with being a German living in Russia. From this day forward, he would be a Russian from Ukraine who settled in Moscow.
Ivan meets the Russian writer, Maxim Gorky, and quits the University to work on Gorky's newspaper in Petrograd. This becomes the beginning of a new life for Ivan. He falls in love with Natasha, another youthful revolutionary. They move in together in a small flat and work long hours for the cause on the Petrograd Party Committee.
Natasha is arrested, charged with being a subversive and jailed at the Peter and Paul Fortress. Ivan leaves Petrograd and moves in with members of the Social Revolutionary Group at Tokmak. What follows is a general strike and a bloody street battle between Bolshevik's and the Tsar's Cossacks. The Tsar finally abdicates in favor of the Kerensky government, which is then overthrown by Lenin's Bolsheviks in a civil war. Ivan starts a slow process of disillusionment with the revolution and consequences of his own actions.
While on Party business he visits his home village, but finds that his old friend, Piotra, now an anarchist commander of a large militia, has destroyed everything; pillaging, beating, raping, and executing children wholesale. the absolute horror Ivan witnesses here is almost physically intolerable and he nearly faints as a result.
Ivan is then discovered to be a German using a false persona and possibly being a spy. He is immediately arrested and imprisoned for seven years at Peter and Paul Fortress. Everyone who ever knew him, including Gorky and Natasha repudiate him. Ivan, now known again as Johann, is then transferred to a prison camp on the island of Sakhalin.
Structure: All through this engaging narrative the author slips in paragraphs of historical context that lends credence to the story. In the chapter, "A New Russia," Mr. Toews offers a succinct but thorough analysis on the changing nature of Russia and how the seeds of revolution were planted while those in charge were oblivious to the future. This chapter also speaks of where the title of the novel came from. In other parts of the story, personal speeches, letters, and short memoirs play a huge role in furthering the narrative along. The author flips back and forth between the microcosm and the macrocosm with expertise and finesse.
Description: The author's descriptive powers are so enormous and artistic, it is as if you are standing inside a painting, with all five senses on fire. Here is but one of many examples of what I speak: "The bare brick walls were dark with smoke that also blackened the ceiling. In the middle stood a large stove around which were wooden bunks. The walls reeked with smoke, the earthen floor with damp, and the bunks with sweat and rotten rags. There were large washtubs lying about. It was common to find goats, a pig and some chickens bedded down in the straw alongside the Osipovitch family. The moist warmth and smell of the animals, the black fumes of the kerosene lamps, and the pungent odor of the home-cured tobacco, which Piotra's mother smoked in rolled up newspaper, combined to create a unique, noxious atmosphere." The reader can't help but to absorb the wretched poverty of this family.
Historical Narrator: Mr. Toews liberally infuses this story with an aloof historical narrator that lifts the reader above the action on the ground, so they can see the bigger picture of all the human drama. At the beginning of the chapter, "The Gesture," the omniscient narrator comes alive and tells us: "What I am about to recount to you now is very difficult. we are entering now a dark and tragic part of our story. It concerns the actions of Piotra, which, in turn, will have a profound effect on Johann; but also, the following account will give shape to the rest of our story; it will set the context of our story within a larger tragic tale of the Mennonites in Russia during the Russian Revolution. It begins with a meeting in a forest at night."
The Nature and Role of God: It appears to this reviewer that, the author's big picture concern is the nature and role of God in human events and how his characters react to or interpret this concept. Mr. Saul Enns, a Mennonite school teacher and expounder of revolutionary ideas clashes with the village elders on the point of belief in God. In arguing with the village's Mennonite minister, he says: "I said I don't believe in God, I did not say that God does not exist. Perhaps God exists out there, somewhere, but if he does, he's quite detached from the world. I don't believe God cares one way or another about what is happening here. I believe that man has to make his own way if we are to make a better world." Here, Mr. Enns', socio-politico-theological worldview is a close second to the Christian Humanism of Leo Tolstoy - not a mystical state, but Christianity as a new theory of life, which Tolstoy robustly defends in his masterwork, The Kingdom of God is Within You.
During his incarceration on the island of Sakhalin, our hero, Johann, comes closer to the Tolstoyian conception of God than Saul Enns. During a moment of deep introspection, Johann concludes: "The life I have lived, the choices I have made, come with consequences. I believed in a God of Justice, as my father, and his fathers before him believed, as they taught me. But that God of Justice seemed too much fettered by religious certainty. After all that I have seen, and done, all in the name of some ideal, that what we were doing was realizing the Kingdom of God on earth, the reality is that all our attempts ended up in chaos."
Conclusion: The chapter, "Peter and Paul Fortress: A Memoir," stands as an unequal fictional portrayal of the nightmare politics of the years just after the revolution. Johann's imprisonment and psychological torture by the Party to which he has dedicated his life is indeed troubling. He relives his short career that embodies the terrible ironies and human betrayals of a totalitarian movement masking itself as an instrument of deliverance. Almost unbearably vivid in its depiction of one youth's solitary agony.
The final chapter, "Fr. Francis," speaks volumes about Johann's relationship with the world and its many twists and turns, and, also about his relationship with Christ. These two chapters are the most powerful of the novel, filled with insight into the human condition. The ending is so powerful, it can be rear and re-read many times.
The Quiet in the Land asks questions about ends and means that have relevance not only for the past but for the perilous present. A grimly fascinating interpretation of the logic of the Russian Revolution, and at the same time an intense intellectualized drama. I give this work a rating of five out of five stars for all the points spoke about: Structure, description, narration, and the Nature and Role of God put forth in the story. I highly recommend this debut novel for anyone who loves a good story embedded in history.
About the Author: Richard Toews is a screenwriter and film director. His first film, "The Prodigal," has been screened at numerous film festivals in Canada and the U.S. The film was awarded a Gold Remi at the Houston International Film Festival. His novel, The Quiet in the Land, is his debut novel.