Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 680

Several themes are woven throughout the fabric of Farewell from Nowhere, the most obvious one being the redemptive power of compassion as it is embodied in the lives of individuals and institutions. At one point, Vlad describes himself as a baton being passed in a relay race and acknowledges that his survival has often depended upon the kindness of others, some poorer than himself, without whose help he certainly would have perished. Equally conspicuous is the absence of any such benevolence in the workings of the Stalin regime, and here Maximov unleashes his fiercest contempt. Throughout the novel Maximov creates vivid portraits of people who have allowed their “official duties” and political zeal to nullify their humanity. On one occasion Vlad meets a journalist from the West, a smug advocate of socialist ideas and “progress,” who dismisses the Russians’ religious faith as naive. Vlad is unimpressed with this soulless foreigner; Vlad has witnessed the socialist experiment at first hand and knows it to be only a political abstraction in which the value of human life becomes unreal. An especially poignant image is his recollection of the prison riot at Butyrki, where he overheard the disturbing plea of “Let me shoot too, Daddy!” coming from the eight-year-old son of the prison warden.

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A political structure so prone to inequity inevitably breeds corruption in its individual citizens, and the struggle to retain personal integrity emerges as another challenge to the characters. For Vlad, this comes to mean preserving his artistic integrity, as well, though it may be a handicap to worldly survival. He must walk an even narrower ledge than most: On the one side, he risks having fear and political intimidation silence his literary vision, and on the other, he must avoid the numbing complacency and self-congratulatory inertia of the Russian artistic establishment. It is, in fact, the need for constant movement, both physical and spiritual, that distinguishes Vlad from those around him. He is driven by an almost congenital sense of the ephemeral nature of existence, the realization that life is fleeting and that moments once lived can never be regained. The narrator reflects that “Time refuses to give back what is dearest to us from the past, in order to accustom us to the silence of our ultimate aloneness.” Vlad’s travels and subsequent return home are his attempt to recoup these losses. He searches for an underlying coherence, yet his fragmented experience yields nothing but a sense of estrangement and personal exile. As the story closes, he finally comes to understand that the thread he has been seeking is himself.

Several critics have complained about the novel’s lack of organization, finding the meandering narrative tedious and irksome, and at a first reading the book does seem to be assembled in a rather haphazard fashion. Yet, whether it was the author’s intention or not, the style and structure succeed to the extent that they mimic Vlad’s, and presumably Maximov’s, experience of life: People enter and exit unannounced, perhaps never to be seen again, and the perspective necessary to understand this stream of faces and events cannot be gained fully until the novel’s end. In the final chapter, the distinction between the author and his protagonist becomes blurred, and a single voice reflects: “I weep and sob. My soul mourns. Ghosts, ghosts, ghosts! They have been crowding around me, firmly and loudly announcing their right to a word of reminiscence or a brief episode.... Nothing is forgotten, nothing! We are like the leaves of a tree: Even when we fall, we retain within us its image and likeness.”

Maximov’s final message seems to be this: Discreate the Stalinist purges and the hardships of poverty and war if possible, but human life in even the best of societies will always remain fundamentally tragic, infused with a longing that can never be requited. Every individual accumulates moments of experience that shape him or her, and those moments become part of a past to which one can never return, yet which one can never entirely leave behind.

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