By Boris Pasternak
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Pantheon. 544 pp. $30.
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Reviewed by Chris Hedges
This novel is one of the 20th century's great indictments of armed revolution, utopian visionaries, and war. Russia's turbulent history, beset with cruel repression from the czar, followed by World War I, the Bolshevik revolution, the civil war, and the great purges by Joseph Stalin, left in its wake tens of millions of victims and serves as the tragic backdrop to the novel.
It is the victims that Pasternak - who was denounced by the state and became a nonperson as soon as Dr. Zhivago was published in Italy in 1957 - mourns and celebrates. We view the seminal moments of upheaval through the eyes of the powerless. Their sorrow and tears expose the dead hand of power.
This new translation is a big event on many levels. It's a needed rehearing of a monumental book with a monumental message. And it continues the sparkling career of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the husband and wife who are retranslating the great works of Russian literature for a new generation. Their rendering of Zhivago captures Pasternak's lyricism, his faithful rendering of dialects, and his gorgeous evocations of landscapes, scenes, and moments of pain, loss, and finally, love. Pasternak, who was as accomplished a poet as a novelist, needed translators like these.
The book opens with the boy Yuri Zhivago at his mother's funeral, awash in grief and attempting to "speak over his mother's grave." The orphaned boy becomes a metaphor for the orphaned man. In the world Zhivago the man comes to inhabit, his sensitivity and gentleness prove to be fatal weaknesses.
Pasternak spares none of those in power, neither the corrupt old oligarchy nor the newly minted leaders of the revolution, whom he describes as "stern idols in whom political arrogance had exterminated everything alive and human."
Zhivago is pressed into service as a doctor in the czar's army and then later for militias fighting the rebellious White Russian forces after the 1917 revolution. He thus witnesses the butchery of war and the callous generals and ideologues who prosecute it. He is torn, first from his wife and son, and later from his lover Lara, by the tempests of war that seek to thwart all tenderness and love.
"The rulers of your minds indulge in proverbs," Zhivago tells the militia commander who press-ganged him into the unit:
but they've forgotten the main one, that love cannot be forced, and they have a deeply rooted habit of liberating people and making them happy, especially those who haven't asked for it. . . . I probably should even bless you and thank you for my captivity, for your having liberated me from my family, my son, my home, my work, from everything that's dear to me and that I live by.
To Pasternak, war is butchery and organized sadism. War is a man, his right arm and left leg chopped off, left to crawl his way through the snow until he dies. It is school boys, pressed into battle, gunned down and abandoned in open fields to bleed to death. It is famines, rapes, burned villages, and massacres that drive refugee women and even soldiers to insanity and to the murder of their own children.
War is where the human laws of civilization end and those of the beasts take control. It is "lawful and extolled murder," a world in which "man dreamed the prehistoric dreams of the caveman."
The commander Strelnikov abandons Lara, his wife, to find glory and a perverted manhood in war. He orders a town to be bombarded because it has been captured by the enemy - even though he knows his wife and young daughter are taking refuge there. "Disappointment embittered him," Pasternak writes of Strelnikov, modeled in part on Leon Trotsky. "The revolution armed him."
"The atrocities of the Whites and Reds rivaled each other in cruelty," Pasternak writes, "increasing in turns as if multiplied by each other. The blood was nauseating, it rose to your throat and got into your head, your eyes were swollen with it."
Violence and destruction become ends in themselves. It is all that those who wage war love. It is all they know how to do. "But it turns out that for the inspirers of the revolution, the turmoil of changes and rearrangements is their only native element, that they won't settle for less than something on a global scale," Pasternak writes. "The building of worlds, transitional periods - for them this is an end in itself. They haven't studied anything else, they don't know how to do anything. And do you know where the bustle of eternal preparations comes from? From the lack of definite, ready abilities, from giftlessness."
Zhivago, who during the civil war sees Lara, by now pregnant, slip from his grasp, falls into poverty and squalor. He dies of a heart attack before he is 40. Lara, who is induced to give up their infant for adoption, searches for her child in vain after the civil war, before being "forgotten under some nameless number on subsequent lost lists, in one of the countless general or women's concentration camps in the north." The lives of the two lovers are no match for the dark narcotic of war and revolution. Like millions around them, they are extinguished.
When she attends Zhivago's wake, Lara thinks that he and she had loved "because everything around them wanted it so: the earth beneath them, the sky over their heads, the clouds and trees." But the nation they lived in had banished love in favor of a collective dance with death, embodied for Pasternak in the desolate figure of Strelnikov, who is eventually denounced by the authorities as an enemy of the revolution and who commits suicide. And that is what war and revolution become - forms of suicide.
At one point, Zhivago recounts his own political evolution. It functions as a cautionary moral of this triumphant novel, newly triumphant in this new translation: "I used to be in a very revolutionary mood, but now I think that we'll gain nothing by violence. People must be drawn to the good by the good."