Life and Fate Read Along, Part 3 Chapter 35

Life and Fate Read Along, Part 3 Chapter 35
Photo by Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

This post, covering Part 3, Chapter 35 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 6th Army’s soldiers celebrate their Christmas in the encirclement. Their holiday feast in the illustrious year of 1942: horsemeat and complaints. By this time they are so familiar with deprivation that this meal leads to a lively debate over the best way to cook horse. 

Their rapidly devolving situation contrasts neatly with the state of the Red Army earlier in Life and Fate (although their situation never seemed quite so dire, if always equally as deadly), continuing the reversal of behavior and attitudes that has followed the shift in the war. One of the men hammers the point home when he draws a parallel to his time as a guard, watching prisoners-of-war scrounging to survive: “I said to myself: ‘They’re not human beings - they’re beasts. And now we’ve beasts ourselves.” (p. 702)

Although one feature seems consistent across both armies, the difficult-to-explain decisions from the top brass. Bach and a general arrive to gift the soldiery individual Christmas trees decorated with tinsel and fruit drops.

The narrator does not depict how the men react to this gift. In their shoes, I imagine that I might think bitterly of the decision to send the trees rather than, say, food slightly more palatable than horsemeat. 

Whatever Grossman imagined this created group of men thinking, we do know one thing for certain: the pilot who brought gifts will not be making another delivery. With the general’s bidding, Bach relays that he was wounded on approach to Stalingrad and apparently died shortly after landing the plane. 

Stalin’s proclamation of ‘not one step back!’ — which Stalingrad introduced with a neutral bordering on positive tone — has not been much mentioned in this novel. We can see, though, artifacts of its existence through comments here and there of officers needlessly spending subordinates’ lives for the sake of saving face. Perhaps the narrator is using this 6th Army delivery to draw attention to a common feature between the two armies.

Whatever the case may be, there is not much time left for these doomed men.

Until tomorrow,
Matt & Cameron