Tuesday, January 15, 2019

And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov

The perfect realist epic
Russian author Mikhail Sholokhov, winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Literature, began writing his epic work Tikhy Don (The Silent Don) in 1928 and didn’t finish until 1940. Originally serialized in the Russian magazine Okytabr, the work has been published in English translation as a pair of novels, the first of which is entitled And Quiet Flows the Don. The novel chronicles Russian history through the lives of a large ensemble cast comprised primarily of Cossacks from the Don River region of southwestern Russia, near the Ukraine. The Cossacks, a semi-autonomous people whose self-government was democratic rather than feudalistic, farmed their own lands, which put them in a social class above the Russian peasantry. Like modern-day Spartans, the Cossacks placed a great deal of emphasis on military training and were employed by the Russian Tsar as an elite military force.

Beginning around 1912, And Quiet Flows the Don is broken up into four parts: Peace, War, Revolution, and Civil War. The first of these sections focuses primarily on the farming life of the Don Cossacks in the village of Tatarsk, and in particular the Melekhov family. Gregor, the younger, hot-headed son of the family, embarks on a tempestuous love affair with Aksinia, his neighbor’s wife, an entanglement that creates repercussions throughout the book. Sholokhov combines beautifully poetic passages of natural beauty with brutally realistic depictions of the harshness and hardships of Cossack life, calling to mind Polish author Wladyslaw Reymont’s classic rural epic The Peasants. The story then follows the turbulent course of Russian history through World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent Russian Civil War, in which multiple parties fought to fill the power vacuum created by the fall of the Tsar. By the end of the book, the Cossacks are split into a confusing array of loyalties and alliances as they struggle to determine the fate of their community amid the turmoil and devastation of war.

This novel is about as perfect a masterwork of literary realism as you’ll ever find. Sholokhov depicts the time and place of the narrative with impeccable verisimilitude, frankness, and detail. The reader is imminently present in this culture and atmosphere and feels deeply for these characters. Nothing ever feels forced, idealized, or contrived. Love and lust are never idyllic. People die unexpectedly and in unglamorous ways. Sholokhov’s tone could be described as deadpan if his prose weren’t suffused with so much beauty. While bearing the truthful ring of naturalism, the book is indubitably modern. Though the Melekhovs may justly be called the main characters, the narrative is by no means singular or linear. Major figures fade into the background while minor characters take center stage. Without deliberately scorning convention, Sholokhov unselfconsciously defies all expectations. Notably stark and gritty war novels like A Farewell to Arms or The Naked and the Dead feel like flowery romanticism by comparison.

And Quiet Flows the Don is arguably the greatest literary masterpiece to come out of the Soviet Union (better than Doctor Zhivago, in my opinion). Though it won the Stalin Prize and is considered a work of socialist realism, the book is not particularly pro-socialist, pro-communist, or pro-Soviet. If anything, it is just pro-Cossack, and focuses on the plight of the people amid whom Sholokhov grew up. Though a military epic, the book is more an anti-war novel than a war novel. Its indelible scenes of Cossack struggle for survival, freedom, peace, and dignity amount to a superb drama of universal humanity. Though some fundamental knowledge of Russian history may be required, everyone, Russian or not, should read this book.
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