Life and Fate Read Along, Part 1 Chapter 31
This post, covering Part 1, Chapter 31, is part of The Slavic Literature Pod’s chapter a day read along of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Learn more about our project here.
In the previous chapter, Lyudmila’s presence — the fact of an actual, grieving mother — disrupts hospital Commissar Shimansky’s routine. The resulting emotion offends him: what if he had to feel this way every time someone died?
This same challenge, in this chapter, is put forth to the whole array from hospital staff. From the doctor who did the operation to the grave-digger, each has their turn to meet with Lyudmila. Each finds themselves wanting under her gaze.
This is because, as the narrator puts it: “Everyone feels guilty before a mother who has lost her son in a way; throughout human history men have tried in vain to justify themselves.” (p. 150). Lyudmila perceives that the staffers she meets wants her to comfort them, as if to absolve them for not saving her son’s life.
The narrator draws our attention to the fact that these attempts to justify themselves are not a universal impulse, but arise specifically in reaction to Lyudmila. Wounded soldiers sometimes die — the commissar acknowledges this reality and the fact that it has not previously bothered him. But now the grieving mother in front of him breaks this routine, perhaps reminding him that each death leaves a hole in the heart of a family.