Life and Fate Read Along, Part 3 Chapter 38

This post, covering Part 3, Chapter 38 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.

The closing days of the 6th Army’s existence finds Lieutenant Bach lying in the bed of a Russian woman, Zina. She has been present throughout his story in Life and Fate, but always in the background. You may recall that she came to visit Bach during his stint in the hospital — but, in a fit of fascist rage, he sent his Russian mistress away in embarrassment. 

Now though, in the midst of a falling away from fascist ideals, Bach has realized that Zina is the most important thing in the world to him. This realization causes him to pull her closer, to get on his knees and pepper her body in a kisses. It is an act of frenzied passion and submission known well to lovers — the action often does not even posses an erotic behavior, driven instead by a desire to pull two beings together into one. 

Bach knows, correctly, that their time is short. 

“Soon,” he thinks, “the wave which had carried him to this woman would tear him away from her, would separate them for ever. Still on his knees, he threw his arms around her legs and looked into her eyes. She listened, trying to guess what he was saying, trying to understand what had happened to him.” (p. 745)

Given all the horrors of fascism Grossman has depicted in Life and Fate — given all the fascist horrors Grossman experienced and saw — it may seem bizarre for him to depict a romance between a doomed fascist invader and a Soviet woman. Of all the people to extend sympathy to, why to such a footsoldier of evil? 

It may be tempting to read Bach as an unreliable narrator in this act. But the narrator also gives us Zina’s perspective, who finds his fervor unexpectedly familiar:  “She had never seen such an expression on the face of a German. She had thought that only the eyes of a Russian could look so tender, so imploringly, so mad, so full of suffering.” (p. 745)

In the hands of most authors, we would probably consider this concept to be done in extremely bad taste (although it most assuredly has been written repeatedly). Perhaps in another version Bach would never have been a true believer, forced by circumstance to come to Stalingrad. Perhaps in that version he always fired over the enemy’s head. Perhaps he would have tried to cull the worst excesses of his comrades. 

But that is not Bach. Bach is not a good person. He has commanded fascist forces, he previously accepted the power of German state fascism. Up to this point, he has cared little whether Zina lived or died. Even when he had plenty of food, he only shared it with her once — and that was by accident. 

So this culmination of their emotional arc, a fascist soldier decrying his own ideology (far too late) and embracing only the love of an untermensch, may seem bizarre. But it is absolutely consistent with the most consistent principle of this book: that core humanness is made up of senseless kindness.