Friday, 5 August 2016

Book Review: The Train by Vera Panova

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2016 review of a book written
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It’s a matter of fact that wars aren’t only fought by soldiers on the battlefields, but that many others are involved in it, be they members of the army working at the rear, be they civilians assuring that there is no shortage of supply at the front nor at home (as there has been in every great war, though). Among the essential services that any army needs to provide is qualified medical care in field hospitals, sometimes rolling ones like in the rather forgotten World War II novel The Train by Vera Panova that won the renowned Stalin Prize 1947 and that appeared in English translation in 1948. The men and women packed together on the hospital train to take care of the wounded come from different backgrounds. Nonetheless, they have something very important in common: they are fervent patriots with a strong desire to help their heroic soldiers and their country to win against Nazi-Germany.

Vera Panova (Bера Фёдopoвна Панова) was born in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, in March 1905. The October Revolution of 1917 put an end to her formal education in a private high school, but as an avid reader she made up for much of it on her own. Starting in 1922 she worked as journalist and ten years later she began to write plays, some of them quite successful. As from 1940 she lived in Leningrad with her daughter and they narrowly escaped deportation to a Nazi concentration camp. They moved to Molotov (today: Perm) in Ukraine for the rest of the war. It was there that the author published her first novel Yevdokia (Евдокия: 1943; originally titled Семья Пирожковых [The Pirozhkov Family]). Back in Leningrad followed the Stalin-Prize winning novels The Train (Спутники: 1946), Looking Ahead (Кружилиха: 1947; previouly translated as The Factory) and Ясный берег (1949; Bright Shore). Others of her most notable works are Span of the Year (Времена года: 1953), Time Walked (Серёжа: 1955; later translated as A Summer to Remember and Seryozha: A Few Histories from the Life of a Very Small Boy), and the short stories Valya (Валя: 1959) and Volodya (Володя: 1959). Vera Panova died in Leningrad (today: Saint Petersburg), Soviet Union (today: Russia), in March 1973.

On Sunday, 22 June 1941 the news of a German attack against the Soviet Union shock not only Stalin, who relied on the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to save the country from being drawn into another world war, but also citizens from Vladivostok to Leningrad. Already the next morning Ivan Egorych Danilov, the director of an agricultural trust, is appointed commissar of The Train serving as mobile field hospital. His first task is to choose his staff.
“When it was a question of whom to select—a confident, easy-mannered assistant doctor from the town, lively, vigorous, full of spirits: or a mild, colourless woman of two years’ experience in a country district with a youthful, nervous look about her, not too robust—he unhesitatingly chose the woman.”
Julia Dmitriyevna is in her early forties and volunteers as theatre sister like already in the Finnish war of 1939-40. She is a resolute spinster always in love with the doctor she works for in the theatre, but usually without hope to win him because she is all but handsome or charming. This time she takes to Dr. Suprugov, a confirmed bachelor of forty who lives with his old mother and went into the war reluctantly because he is afraid of virtually everything. Also the head-sister Faina Vassilyevna, a boisterous young woman who openly flirts with the men onboard, sets an eye on Suprugov, gives up on him, though, when she realises that an unlikely romance is about to begin between him and Julia Dmitriyevna.
“But she would see Suprugov, hear the special, significant note in his voice, catch his glance, also with a special significance in it, and his smile directed at her—and again the wave of hope would catch her up and sweep her away. ...”
Lena Ogorodnikova is hired as a nurse although she is a physical training instructor really. She is twenty-one years old and Julia Dmitriyevna thinks her flighty, but she is just friendly with the men having got married ten months earlier and thinking only of her beloved husband at the front. The commandant of the train is Dr. Belov from Leningrad who isn’t used to life without his adored wife Sonechka and his son and daughter. For nearly four years they and several others live and work closely together sharing sorrows and joys, boredom and action, death and birth.

For a World War II novel The Train is strangely bloodless and quiet, almost idyllic. Of course, this is owing to the fact that most of the plot is set at the rear, i.e. far from the front-lines, death and devastation. Moreover, the novel is driven rather by its characters than by action which accounts also for the original Russian title Спутники meaning “companions” or “fellow travellers” in English. At the same time the story is in line with what Soviet authorities, notably Stalin himself, expected celebrating kindness and sympathy as ideals of the revolution and Socialism altogether as well as (Soviet) society that lives them. In other words, Vera Panova was a Party writer, the perfect representative of the literary movement called Socialist Realism. To a western reader this kind of realism feels a bit strange (I’m tempted to write almost magical) because – like a look on society through rose-coloured spectacles – it lacks tensions and conflict. Nonetheless, the novel’s characters are remarkably nuanced and behave quite naturally within the restrictions of ideological correctness. In many scenes the author also shows great skill for naturalistic and yet lively descriptions. With the exception of passages that seem to echo the language of accepted Party ideology, the author’s language is concise and unpretentious which makes it a pleasure to read.

All things considered, I enjoyed reading The Train by Vera Panova very much, above all because the author mostly refrained from moralising and indoctrinating the reader with Socialist or rather Stalinist ideology. I particularly liked that its focus is on the characters, their development and their (admittedly too harmonious) relations to each other. It’s also a light and easy read showing an aspect of Soviet reality during World War II from the contemporary Soviet point of view. Therefore it’s an important time piece that I gladly recommend.

The novel The Train is also included in the 1975 (out-of-print) edition of Selected Works by Vera Panova.

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  1. Yet another POV on WWII. It is always amazing to me how many there are. But quite interesting that this one is from the former Soviet Socialist Realism view but with added character development.

    1. Yes, The Train by Very Panova is quite different from what we're used to in WWII novels, maybe a bit too... ideologically correct with everybody just being nice to each other ;-). Thanks for your comment, Judy!


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