Friday, August 19, 2016

The cook at Smolensk

In Book 10 Chapter 4 of War and Peace , the innkeeper Ferapontov's cook comes out into the street, curious about the noises of the cannon-balls. It is Smolensk, in August 1812.

The peasants aren't yet able to conceive the significance of these fireworks in the sky. Ferapontov's conversation is still about the rye harvest. Someone official told him that steps have been taken to prevent any trouble from the French, and he believes it.

While he berates his cook for her idleness, the projectiles are whining harmlessly overhead, but suddenly one of them stops whining and explodes in their street.

When bystanders recover from the flash and the shock, the cook is heard to be wailing monotonously: "Don't let me die, good people, don't let me die."

We don't hear much more about her, but it seems that a splinter from the shell has broken her thigh.

Remembering my friend in the office, who recently broke his femur in a cycling collision, and the complicated modern surgery required, and him being off work for more than a year...  well, breaking your thigh-bone is no joke.

And given that Smolensk on that sunny day is collapsing, within a couple of hours, into a chaos of refugees and fleeing soldiers, I don't have too much hope for that poor cook.

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Tolstoy, like Zola in La Débâcle, and like Jonathan Littell, is continually preoccupied with the paradoxes of war: the baffling disparity between wartime experience and peacetime experience, the parallel existence of peace alongside war and the terrible transformation from one to the other.

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The battle of Smolensk, painting by Peter von Hess

[Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1029458]



This is where I am right now in War and Peace (I'm listening to the Librivox audiobook); with the carts of the refugees choked up in Smolensk, while the soldiers loot and burn buildings.

The cook is a very minor figure, one of hundreds or even thousands in this novel, but her slender story - the suddenness of this life-changing catastrophe, and yet the banality of its arrival - there's something very affecting about it.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that this is one of the only chapters in War and Peace to focus on the common people rather than on the ruling classes. Of course I love Pierre and Natasha and Prince Andrey too, but that love is a more complex thing. The cook is ... We know nothing about her... the cook is life itself, somehow.


[In hindsight, the cook's injury sounds the first note of a Book (i.e. Book Ten) that will end with the terrible bloodshed of Borodino.]

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I might be the only person on earth to be reading War and Peace at the same time as reading Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones (2006). But the comparison has been made before.

The Kindly Ones (not to be confused with Anthony Powell's novel about the eve of WWII in England, or with Aeschylus's play, for that matter) is a fiction on a similar scale to Tolstoy's. It's an account of the Eastern Front from the perspective of an SS officer who took part in the Einsatzgruppen operations, among other things.

Littell, I think I remember reading, wrote some of his book while shut away in a humanitarian aid Agency in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s, as well as in other "troublespots" around the world. A non-fictional book that I'm currently reading, Tim Butcher's Blood River, gives some idea of the chaos, the violence and the atrocities in the Congo that perhaps went some way to provoking  Littell's astounding meditation on war and evil.

Littell's book, written in French, was a bestseller and a critical sensation in France. Its reception in the English-speaking world was more mixed; but surely that'll settle down. Reviewers in the English-speaking world didn't think much of Solzhenitsyn's August 1914 either; another brilliant war book to add to the three already mentioned.






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