William T. Vollmann was born in Santa Monica, California, and educated at Deep Springs College and Cornell University, where he graduated summa cum laude. He has worked as a computer programmer and founded CoTangent Press, producing limited editions of his works and those of other writers. Vollmann received the Whiting Writers’ Award in 1988 for You Bright and Risen Angels: A Cartoon and the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize in 1989 for an excerpt from Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes.
William T. Vollmann’s demanding, postmodern fiction has tackled a number of subjects, ranging from a war between insects and the inventors of electricity in You Bright and Risen Angels: A Cartoon (1987) to San Francisco prostitutes and drug addicts in The Royal Family (2000) to what Vollmann terms a “symbolic history” of North America in Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes (1990-2001). Vollmann offers another metahistorical fiction in Europe Central, a look at much of the twentieth century from German and Russian perspectives, with the emphasis on the events of World War II. A massive, ambitious, demanding work, Europe Central won the National Book Award but may put off some readers because of its bulk and its failure to adhere to a linear narrative. In addition to being a meditation on war and totalitarianism, Europe Central is also, through several sections dealing with artists, about the transforming nature of art: “Art does not so much derive from life as actually change the perception and appreciation of it, casting itself across existence like a shadow.”
Vollmann has said that in his fiction he strives for a dreamlike effect. Europe Central resembles a slow-motion nightmare in which political conflict spins the lives of a large cast of characters out of control. Composed of thirty-seven stories, Europe Central looks at how artists, military leaders, and ordinary people struggle to understand the nature of evil. The central event, for which Vollmann has drawn a map, is Operation Barbarossa, the German advance into Russia in 1941, ending with the defeat of the invaders at Stalingrad. Vollmann employs both historical and fictional characters, all of whom exist at the petulant whims of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, who lurk in the background and occasionally make cameo appearances.
Europe Central is dedicated to Danilo Ki, whose A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (1978) has a similar structure with interrelated stories and for a 2001 edition of which Vollmann wrote an afterword. (Ki is also cited within the novel.) Both books also deal with anti-Semitism and Stalin’s purges within the Soviet Union. With one exception, the stories appear as contrasting pairs from German and Russian points of view.
The longest set of pairs, “Breakout” and “The Last Field-Marshal,” presents Soviet General Andrei Vaslov’s capture and formation of a Russian Liberation Army to oppose Stalin and the efforts of German General Friedrich Paulus to complete his initially successful invasion of the Soviet Union. Vaslov first fights against Paulus’s forces, only to join with the enemy after his capture. Paulus is likewise captured and used for propaganda purposes by his enemy. Both are good men doing what they must, and both their lives end badly. “Breakout” is the more effective story because Vollmann’s Vaslov has greater psychological depth than does his Paulus. “The Last Field-Marshal” becomes bogged down a bit by the details of military maneuvering, one of several instances when Vollmann is seduced by his extensive research. He comes close to being a more literary version of James Michener who feels obligated to cram every bit of his research into the narrative.
One of the most affecting stories, “Clean Hands,” tells of Kurt Gerstein’s endeavors to alert the world to the horrors of the Holocaust. Beaten in 1936 and 1938 for opposing Nazi policies, Gerstein is a devout Christian whose beloved sister-in-law is killed by Nazis. Nevertheless, he becomes the Schutzstaffel (SS) officer responsible for supplying the toxic canisters used to exterminate Jews at Belec and other concentration camps in Poland. He tries to sabotage his own efforts and get word to the Allies. While everyone around him, including his father, supports Hitler and hates Jews, Gerstein just grits his teeth. The less known about his true feelings, the more likely he will find some way to help his victims. Because he does not believe in what he is doing, Gerstein keeps telling himself that he has clean hands.
Most of Vollmann’s characters are...
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