M. Eidelman

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[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 rumble of the times is heard in the novel. (p. 94)

The major love story is that of Jacob "cleaving" to Rachael and their living together in labor and joy for thirty years as though they were one, producing a large family. The themes of love, the family, familial existence lie at the very base of this novel. (p. 95)

The deliberately simplified and "neutral" writing of the novel, with its prosaicism and material self-interest, illuminates by sharp contrast the enormity of the tragedy that ensues. For what the book then tells about is something so terrible that it cannot be put into words. The war. Fascism. Genocide …

If the writer had stressed the horrors, then we would probably have been horrified. But that would have affected only our nerves. This novel affects one's feelings and one's reason. And when the sinister visage of fascism makes its appearance in the book, the author writes of the most terrible days of the Jewish ghetto with restraint, as before. Everything is examined not so much emotionally as attentively, or, as the saying has it, in the course of the day's work. (pp. 95-6)

With difficulty but irreversibly the characters of the novel join in heroic action. Rybakov does not idealize either the individuals or their deeds. Under the most indescribably severe, inhuman conditions of the ghetto, their characters are not reborn but reveal themselves more clearly. Physical strength and strength of spirit combine in Abraham Rakhlenko so harmoniously that one is not amazed when this 82-year-old organizes the resistance in the ghetto….

One always senses that beneath the outward mildness of the quiet, delicate Jacob there is an unbreakable will, and he becomes a fighter. (p. 96)

[But] the ghetto is not of one piece: there are cowards, there are traitors, there are those who wish merely to survive, and there are genuine heroes. And the struggle to save people, for life, for freedom, is constructed of everyday details, of "grains of sand," and of consciously heroic actions.

The novel takes on broad epic scope. If previously Rachael and Jacob consolidated their family by their love, now they defend and consolidate their people, their mother country, where their ancestors had lived and labored. (p. 97)

The ghetto has risen. Six hundred of those confined in it took the risk of battle and escaped the ghetto. Two thousand could not do so, were terrified, hoped that things would turn better, and were exterminated by the fascists. Naturally, of the 600 not all broke through to the partisans: many died; but they died not in submission, but in struggle. The ghetto proclaimed its human and civic dignity.

The roots of the heroic transformation of individuals lay in the spiritual forces of the people. The traditions of folk ethic, as values carried through the centuries, merge in the novel with the ideals of the new Russia. That unforgettable light of the revolution … now illuminates the struggle of a people against fascism.

Internationalism is one of the ideas that is the burden of Heavy Sand. The Rakhlenko and Ivanovskii families [both Jewish] live splendidly with their neighbor families of Belorussians, Russians, Ukrainians. The Stashenki family, Belorussians, and the Russian nanny Anna Egorovna help their acquaintances who find themselves in the ghetto. The Stashenkis are shot for their connections with the partisans. Anna Egorovna dies. The novel calls her a woman of greatness. But did these people know that they were great? Of course not. They did not know anything of the kind. They simply went about behaving like human beings. And in this elemental humanity there is revealed without fanfare the utter naturalness with which what is holy in people makes its appearance.

The escape from the ghetto to join the partisans is described with objective thoroughness. Rachael scurries about among the people just like an experienced housewife, making practical decisions. And suddenly she disappears. She has not left, or fallen, or died. It is as though she has dissolved. Herein lies both a superb metaphor, raising the image of an ordinary woman to the quality of a legend, and plain common sense: the job was done, the people had reached the partisans, and she is no longer necessary. Many others disappeared, a majority of those who rebelled, perished; but that SOMETHING they achieved, remained; the triumph of the human spirit over evil remained. (pp. 97-8)

M. Eidelman, "Indestructibility: A Review of Anatolii Rybakov's Novel 'Heavy Sand'," in Soviet Studies in Literature (© 1979 by M. E. Sharpe, Inc., Armonk, NY 10504), Vol. XV, No. 4, Fall, 1979, pp. 91-9.


Walter Laqueur


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