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 history of his family and tells us of domestic events in the lives of its various members….
Interwoven throughout the course of the novel are the themes of familial love and the maintenance of one's personal integrity. With humor and thinly veiled bitterness, Rybakov shows how these two concerns enable the members of Boris's family to survive happily despite everyday setbacks in times of peace, and to endure courageously in the face of overwhelming terrors in times of war.
Boris tells us that his story is only "a pale shadow of what really took place." But through Rybakov's use of the skaz technique, the shocking details of "the vileness to which people can sink" affect us almost as if the characters in "Heavy Sand" were figures from our own lives.
Karen Steinberg, "Surviving WWII in a Russian Jewish Ghetto" (reprinted by permission of the author), in The Christian Science Monitor, May 11, 1981, p. B3.