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 'anti-semitic antics'. Although they are Jews, the Ivanovskys experience not the slightest persecution from their compatriots. It is only when the Germans invade that they suffer. While the narrator is fighting at the Front, his family lead a ghetto uprising and are tortured and exterminated. 'Long live their memory! Eternal glory to those brave sons and daughters of the Byelorussian nation,' concludes the narrator.
What the novel is in effect saying is that the Jewish population is entirely assimilable into the fabric of Russian life and can perform as patriotically as any of the races in the Soviet Union. But admirable as this may be, it's hard not to resist fiction which has such a palpable design on the reader. (p. 17)
John Sutherland, "At the Gay Hussar" (appears here by permission of the London Review of Books and the author), in London Review of Books, August 20 to September 2, 1981, pp. 16-17.∗