William T. Vollmann
Reviewed by Bob Wake
A recent painful outbreak of shingles on my left upper torso and back rendered me unfit for much of anything but Vicodin and bed rest for a couple of weeks. Mostly I wanted seclusion, earplugs to blunt neighborhood traffic and lawnmowers, and an enormous all-consuming novel to occupy my focus. I had earlier this year tackled Roberto Bolaño’s extraordinary epic about Mexican border murders and literary obsession, 2666, on my Kindle. I felt cocky and confident I could do the same with William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central, an 800-page 2005 National Book Award-winning novel about the Eastern Front in WWII and, perhaps the most celebrated element of the book, composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s soul-crushing struggle with creative expression under the jackboot of Soviet-era Communism. My Kindle has so spoiled me that although I already own Vollmann’s book in hardback, I downloaded a digital copy and began click-click-clicking away, often late into the night, blissfully dosed on hydrocordone 5/325.
Europe Central combines deeply researched verisimilitude and at times disorienting and highly effective surrealism. (For instance, a chapter titled “Airlift Idylls,” a 47-page Jungian representation of postwar East Germany’s totalitarian “unconscious” personified as Shostakovich’s self-punishing “shadow” assassinating the composer over and over again Groundhog Day-style.) The months’ long Battle of Stalingrad and siege of Leningrad are told from both the German and Russian sides in multiple perspectives, pampered high command to malnourished and frostbitten frontline soldiers to civilians and combatants slaughtered and piled into mass graves. Vollmann writes from character-driven voices—government bureaucrats and secret police hacks with rigid political biases—giving the novel a kind of cognitive dissonance that parallels the conflicted harmonic dissonances of Shostakovich’s most radical musical works (banned or denounced by Soviet authorities as “formalist,” “repulsive” and “ultra-individualist”).
Best listened to in a windowless room, better than best in an airless room—correctly speaking, a bunker sealed forever and enwrapped in tree-roots—the Eighth String Quartet of Shostakovich (Opus 110) is the living corpse of music, perfect in its horror. Call it the simultaneous asphyxiation and bleeding of melody. The soul strips itself of life in a dusty room.
The novel is dedicated to the Serbian writer Danilo Kiš (1935-1989), author of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, a collection of short stories that Vollmann has long prized (he wrote the afterword for a 2001 Dalkey Archive reprint edition). Vollmann’s sensibility is uniquely his own, but it’s not difficult to discern the influence of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich. Kiš’s stories, with their interlocking storylines and recurring characters, are concerned with the blinkered psychological makeup of communist and fascist “true believers” and the ideological masks that excuse and even encourage murderous depravity and anti-Semitism. Both authors provide penetrating insight into the cultural megalomania and racist folklore that underpin the Holocaust. Accepting the 2005 National Book Award for Europe Central, Vollmann said:
I really have tried for many years to read myself into this horrible event and imagine how anyone could have done this, whether I could have done this, and that was what this book was about. I’m very happy that it’s over and I don’t have to think about it any more.
What Vollmann has had to think about and what became the topic of an article the author published last month in Harper’s, “Life as a Terrorist: Uncovering my FBI file” (paywalled online, unfortunately, but the issue is worth seeking out at your local library), is the startling revelation that for years he was under surveillance by the U.S. government. Turns out that—unbeknownst to him at the time—Vollmann was an FBI suspect in the 1990s Unabomber case and, later, a Homeland Security suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks. While in no way is Vollmann in his Harper’s piece comparing U.S. domestic spying to Russian political repression, it’s impossible not to find his FOIA-obtained (and heavily redacted) FBI file eerily prefigured in the portrait of Shostakovich’s anxiety over surveillance in Europe Central. As Vollmann writes in Harper’s:
Were I to be shown in accurate detail why it was necessary for me to be kept under surveillance, possibly for the rest of my life, I might be able to accept these invasions of my privacy for the collective good. The ostensible purpose of this surveillance is to protect us, and our freedoms, from terrorists. What remains uncertain, since secret, is how terrifying the terrorists presently are, and to what extent rights and liberties may be undermined in order to save us from them.