Literary Techniques

The stories in Europe Central are rarely narrated by their characters. Although the various narrators are seldom identified and the reader must speculate who they might be, the author uses their narrations to illustrate his themes and ideology because much of the narration conflicts with what the reader knows is true. For example, Russian dissident poet Anna Ahkmatova’s story is told by a loyal Communist, Comrade Alexandrov, who is assigned to watch her every move. The popular poet writes beautiful verse that becomes more political as Stalin’s atrocities increase. When she discovers the grave of Russian poet Nikolai Gumilyev (executed along with sixty-one alleged traitors to the Soviet government), the narrator exclaims:

There she was, praying and sobbing again! Had it been up to me, I would have shot her right there. But who listens to me? And so naturally she went home and wrote more anti-Soviet poems.

The reader soon recognizes the irony: the narrator’s viewpoint is biased.

German SS officer Kurt Gerstein’s story is narrated by an arrogant Nazi who calls Gerstein an “impure element” and proceeds to contemptuously detail Gerstein’s failed attempts to interfere with Hitler’s “final solution” by repeatedly trying to inform Swiss, Swedish, and Vatican officials about shipments of the deadly gas Zyklon B to the concentration camps. The reader realizes that Gerstein is not an “impure element” but a hero for opposing everyone, including his own family, while trying to inform the world about the horrors of the Holocaust.

Vollmann uses strong motifs throughout the novel, one of which is music. While the Third Reich unravels and Nazi Germany loses battle after battle, Hitler escapes into a reverie of German composer Richard Wagner’s operas. There, he deludes himself into believing that like the opera, his army...

(The entire section is 600 words.)