Tuesday, January 8, 2008

David L. Robbins/WAR OF THE RATS

This is my idea of "slumming it" in my reading - a rare example of me stooping to a mass-market thriller. I was attracted at first only by the subject matter (it is closely based on a key part of the battle for Stalingrad during WWII, and I'm a sucker for military history), but as I got into it I was surprised at just how well written it is. It's not great art lit, but it is very competently executed and highly readable.

The novel shows us the last months of the desperate battle for the city, with Russian and German troops fighting each other street by street and building by building in the depths of a freezing winter; often tunnelling under the foundations and through sewers and cellars to try to lay mines beneath buildings occupied by the other side (hence, to the soldiers, the struggle became bitterly known as 'the war of the rats').

In particular, the story focuses on Vassily Zaitsev, a real-life Soviet hero of the battle. Zaitsev was an exceptional marksman, whose exploits may well have served to help turn the tide of battle against the Germans - both in practical terms (he was said to have shot as many as 250 of the enemy in a two-month period, almost all of them officers and NCOs; this must have been significantly disruptive of the chain of command and hugely demoralising) and through the psychological boost this gave to his own side (the Communist Party propaganda machine was shrewdly set into motion to build him up into an inspiring national figurehead of the resistance to the German invasion). War of the Rats is thus telling the same story as (and was probably a major source, though I think an uncredited one, for) Jean-Jacques Annaud's Stalingrad film of a few years ago, 'Enemy At The Gates'. However, this is a much more gritty and believable, less Hollywoodized version of the tale - based closely on contemporary records and Zaitsev's own memoirs.

The book is largely concerned with the minutiae of the brutal art of sniping, a chilling but utterly compelling subject. The Russians set up an ad hoc 'sniper school' so that Zaitsev can share his expertise with other promising sharpshooters. The lessons taught in the school are starkly illustrated in the bleak urban battleground outside, as the Germans assign a top marksman of their own to find and eliminate Zaitsev, and a tense game of cat-and-mouse develops between the two. Whereas in the film this German adversary is demonized as a ruthless and wicked Nazi stereotype, in the book he is a far more rounded and human character, a man who simply has a job to do. The story is depicted alternately from the German side (following the marksman, Thorvald, and the young soldier he enlists as his aide/guide/spotter) and then from the Russian (Zaitsev and his team of snipers), with no favouritism shown to either: both are shown to be human beings caught up in events outside of their control, struggling wretchedly to survive in a hellish environment; both sides win our sympathy. We notice, however, that while Zaitsev and Thorvald respect each other's skill, they cannot allow themselves a recognition of each other's humanity; they must depersonalize their adversary in order to be able to kill him.

The 'sniper duel' is a brilliant story idea - though not a very cinematic one: the action is static rather than fast-moving, the contest is fought not with the body but in the mind. If you liked the film of 'Enemy At The Gates', you'll almost certainly love this book; if you didn't, you might still give the book a try. The rendition of the 'sniper duel' here is ten times as gripping as it is on the screen.

It is perhaps unfortunate (at least for would-be historians like me) that there are doubts as to whether this key element of the story took place at all. Zaitsev himself told the story, but apparently it is uncorroborated by the military records of either army, and most historians are inclined to dismiss it as aprocryphal. Oh, well - it's a hell of a good story, anyhow.

I would have appreciated an historical note on the sources at the end of the book (but I suppose Robbins would object that he is not an historian; and perhaps would say that he did not want to muddle and distract his readers by pointing out where his novel diverges from the known facts). I was also disappointed that the novel ended so abruptly, with subsidiary plot strands left hanging (one almost suspects the author was toying with the idea of a sequel). These two quibbles aside, it is a great story, extremely well told - one of the best Second World War novels I've ever read.

A brief quotation to finish with - I particularly liked this observation of Zaitsev's in comparing his own language to that of the invaders: "He judged it an ugly language, a battle tongue. German was spoken in the back of the throat, bitten and chewed with the teeth. By contrast, he considered Russian to be liquid; it was a language to be cradled on the lips, swirled in the mouth like cognac. Russian could be whispered through a keyhole to an angry lover on the other side to stroke her into unlocking the door. German was the language to knock the door down. It was how you spoke to your dog or cleared your throat."


Trée said...

I think I would buy the book for that one quote alone. Or maybe I should just bookmark this site. :-D

Anonymous said...

having read Werth's Russia at War years ago, and Enemy at the Gates later, I was intrigued with another version of this story. the book was very entertaining until Tania said she was from Florida! From then on I expected magic ponys and fairie dust. Totally ruined the rest of the book for me. Later I was told that Robbins claimed he succumed to presure from his publisher for this derailing. Should have left it alone, Robbins.