Anatoli Rybakov Essay - Critical Essays

Rybakov, Anatoli


Anatoli Rybakov 1911?–

Russian novelist.

Rybakov was a minor figure in Soviet literature until the surprising publication of his recent novel Heavy Sand in the literary magazine Oktyabr. The novel is an epic tale of two Russian-Jewish families before and during the Second World War. Some critics believe Heavy Sand to be an implicit condemnation of Russian actions toward its Jewish population during the Holocaust, a topic hitherto suppressed. Other experts, however, see it as clever propaganda designed to show a softening of the Soviet Union's present restrictive policies toward its Jewish population.

Walter Laqueur

[Heavy Sands (also translated as Heavy Sand)] is not impressive from a literary point of view. Characters are either heroes or villains, there are no shadings, everything is either black or white. Heavy Sands, however, will not be read for its literary accomplishments but rather for the detailed description it offers—the first published in the Soviet Union since 1948—of the last days of many Russian Jews. The topic has been taboo for many reasons. It was not to be mentioned that Jews were singled out for extermination by the Nazis, or that the Nazis had much local help in the process. On the other hand, word of mouth had it that the Jews were killed because they were too cowardly to offer resistance. Rybakov takes issue with those who believe this…. He points out that most of those in the ghettos were either elderly people or very young or ill, since all men of military age were serving in the army. And he also notes the fact that hundreds of thousands of young and strong Soviet prisoners of war were also killed in the camps and did not resist—for what could they have done? But this is only part of Rybakov's answer, for more Jews could have been saved if there had been help from the local populace. Of the "good neighbors," Rybakov says, not a few betrayed the Jews, either because they coveted their houses and property or because they were simply scoundrels. The local police were equal in sadism to the SS.

And what about the partisans?… True, in 1942 the partisans were still on the run, and their main task was to attack the Germans, not to help the persecuted civilian population. But some Jews did make their way into...

(The entire section is 686 words.)

M. Eidelman

[Heavy Sand] grips one instantly. The vivid, multicolored pictures from the life of a little town in the Ukraine, the morals and manners of the Jewish craftspeople, the freedom and humor of narration … (p. 91)

The "homey" style of narration about life as it goes on ultimately creates a disintegrative effect, as between what is and what is to be. Between a life that prospers and its destruction …

In Heavy Sand the author does not analyze or philosophize. He puts facts in our hands…. But there is no fatiguing descriptiveness. It is simply that Rybakov is always in the realm of practical existence, and for him an emphasized "tangibility" is apparently a means of avoiding subjectivism. (p. 92)

It is as though the very concept of the novel is dredged up out of the mass of minor details of which life is made up, literally as out of some heavy sand, of many, many life stories, some of them funny…. What the author is saying is that the mainstream of human history is made up of millions of personal histories of every conceivable kind.

[The] underlying history of its characters takes shape in [Heavy Sand] little by little and through many complexities. The author does not romanticize his characters as heroes. Quite the contrary, in the beginning it would appear that he even debunks them. The main female character, the attractive Rachel, is entirely too practical-minded: and the entire Ivanovskii family, with its patriarch Abraham Rakhlenko at its head, is by no means inclined to miss a chance for personal gain. (p. 93)

The even tenor and practicality of life are merely the appearance of things. In the depths of the work one hears another motif, powerful and carrying events along. It is no accident that the main characters have names out of the Old Testament: Abraham, Jacob, Rachael…. The underlying plan of the work gradually takes shape, and its epic tonality makes itself heard.

This is felt, for example, in the delineation of Abraham Rakhlenko….

The author's emphasis on his hero's enormous physical strength asserts, as it were, the strength of certain eternal moral principles of existence.

It was not yesterday that those principles came into being. They were honed in the depths of a people's labors. Perhaps this is why the author found necessary the Old Testament names with their majestic ring, as though representing an obligation…. These people's principles emerge not in carrying out holy commandments carved on tablets; no, these principles live in the blood of a people and are reflected in hundreds of little things in everyday life. And therein lies the most dependable guarantee of the things to be accomplished in the future …

After the revolution the new generation of Ivanovskiis does not continue as craftsmen but works in factories and goes to college. A new human being takes shape, the builder of a new society. The...

(The entire section is 1234 words.)

Publishers Weekly

Its literary merits (and there are many) aside, [Heavy Sand] is an important book, for it describes, in understated but powerful fashion, the sufferings and deaths of Russian Jews at the hands of the Nazis. Already published in the Soviet Union, the book is permeated with the temperament and outlook of the average Russian. The author shows vividly how his Jewish characters lived in integrated harmony with the Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Poles and other ethnic groups in their village in the Chernigov province, and how all were united in their love of the Motherland. The narrator, looking back over a long life, describes in leisurely, conversational discourse, the love story of his parents, the lives of the large, closeknit Ivanovsky and Rakhlenko clans, their children, relations and friends. Much of the book has the charm and immediacy of a folktale and the innocence of an unpretentious family saga, but Rybakov also subtly depicts the encroachments of Soviet ideology on family and community life, and then the cataclysm of the Nazi occupation. Deceptively simple in its style and tone, the book bears witness to the quiet heroism of many people, gentiles as well as Jews, who went to their deaths with dignity. Its impact lies in the clear ring of truth that resonates in the reader's memory.

"Fiction: 'Heavy Sand'," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the February 20, 1981 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1981 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 219, No. 8, February 20, 1981, p. 91.

Elie Wiesel

A novel about the Holocaust? No, rather about the period preceding the Holocaust. Which is just as well. It's been said that a novel about Auschwitz is, of itself, a contradiction in terms. A phenomenon that transcends and negates all possibility of communication; you can't use it to make literature.

Heavy Sand, nonetheless, does deal with the Holocaust. More specifically, the author, Anatoli Rybakov, shows us an unknown or not well enough known, side of it. Of all the documents, studies and testimonies published on the subject of the concentration camp experience, few are devoted to the fate of the Jews in the Ukraine or White Russia. Do people know that all or most of them were never even deported to the death factories? They were massacred on the spot by the Einsatzkommando. Rybakov's book ends with that event.

At the beginning of his story, children are playing, laborers working and old people are dreaming: they are dead without knowing it. They don't know, they can't know that on the other side of Europe, high up in the Nazi hierarchy, the theoreticians of "the final solution" have already condemned them. A mixture of fiction and fact, of agonizing truthfulness and muffled beauty, Heavy Sand permits a glimpse into a universe of ash and silence, one whose destiny, whether you want it to or not, will lie heavy on your own. You will turn its last pages with a catch in your throat….

I dreaded reading his book: what if it were a tract? A social critique or a paean to the system? A Soviet version, non-Jewish and even anti-Jewish, of the war that the Hitlerites waged against the Jews?…

[But politics] figures in it less than history and its effect on simple human beings, people capable of grandeur as well as pettiness, therefore vulnerable, touching, attractive. All of them are not gloriously altruistic, just as they aren't all egoists; and that applies equally to the Jews, Christians and Communists. It's not enough to be one or the other to merit all the virtues or provoke all the curses…. What then is different about Rybakov's book? His Jewish characters appear,...

(The entire section is 887 words.)

Karen Steinberg

There is a certain kind of writing in Russian fiction known as the skaz, in which the narrator adopts a conversational tone in telling his tale, frequently addressing the reader directly. Among other things, this permits an intimacy on the narrator's part that makes his story more immediate. It is the skaz technique that Anatoli Rybakov employs in his masterly new novel ["Heavy Sand"]. It makes this incredibly gripping tale even more moving than it might ordinarily be.

The novel … is partly autobiographical, recounting the story of a large, closely knit Russian Jewish family from the beginning of the century through World War II. The narrator, Boris Yakovlevich Ivanovsky, gives us the...

(The entire section is 265 words.)

Joshua Rubenstein

Without question, the principal interest of [Heavy Sand] is in its portrayal of Jews during World War II. The novel tells the story of the Rakhlenko family, a large Jewish clan in the Ukraine who are destroyed by the Nazis. The first half of the book chronicles the life of the Rakhlenkos before and after the Revolution….

The family's life in the town is rendered with sentimental flourishes that, on occasion, strain the credibility of Rybakov's narrative…. Rybakov tends to exaggerate the stable, bucolic nature of life in the small Jewish towns of the Ukraine and Belorussia. We know, after all, that the great Jewish communities of the West were founded by those who had fled poverty and...

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Paul Ableman

Heavy Sand is a contemporary Russian novel written not by a dissident but by an established Soviet author….

Rybakov, himself a Jew, is quoted as saying: 'I wanted to show the Jews as people like any other …' and this aspiration contains the seeds of much that is wrong with his book. A work of art is unlikely to result from the attempt to validate a proposition. Moreover, it is a false proposition. The Jews are not 'a people like any other'. Nor, for that matter, are the Russians or the English or the heathen Chinee. Each 'people' thinks of itself as distinctive and certainly has objective distinctive qualities, however determined. In fact, the notion that the Jews are 'a people like any...

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John Sutherland

The Ukraine of Heavy Sand … reminds one of nothing so much as Ambridge. It is a cosy saga of the shoe-making Ivanovsky family: 'simple toilers, who didn't try to solve the world's problems'. Not only the world's problems, but the Ukraine's pass them by unnoticed—there is, for instance, no mention of the Ukrainian nationalist uprising in 1917, which would surely have caught their eye. And although it covers the period from 1909 to 1972, there is no reference to any Soviet leader or any branch of the Soviet police. The Russo-German Pact is mentioned fleetingly, but the narrator (a figure as reliable and simple as Pyat is devious) opines that its real purpose was to bring pressure on the Germans to cease their...

(The entire section is 272 words.)