Monday, 12 December 2011

From Russia With Love

“I have thought long and hard about the disaster that has overtaken my life and about the fate of my book. I wrote about ordinary human beings, about their pain, their joys, their mistakes and their deaths, and now I am forced to ask, why the whole power of the state has been used to forbid publication? To steal my book from me and hide it like a convicted murderer? It contains no lies or slanders, only truth, pain and love for human beings.

This post is about the radio 4 dramatisation of Life and Fate and the spoilers in it are mainly thematic. I have put a spoiler alert where I thought it might be necessary. 

Being born when I was and raised where I was, my knowledge of the Second World War came form the books, films and education I was provided with, which primarily told the stories of the UK, the US, the Jewish people and of course Germany. It disappoints me to comprehend how little I know of the country which it is doubtful the war could have been won without.

Despite having a crucial part in bringing the war to an end, unlike the UK and the US, who tell a story of victory, Russia’s story is different. Russia is hurting, confused and broken. Its involvement in the war, like its political positions and ideologies, were a lot more complex and problematic than those of the other countries who fought Nazi Germany.

Though I have an interest in Russian literature and history, I can’t really say that this was what made me listen to the radio dramatisation of Vasily Grossman’s epic novel Life and Fate. I also confess I was always a bit suspicious of radio dramas; they seemed archaic and unnecessary in a time of television. Only recently I have been getting to know and cherish this exceptionally beautiful form of telling a story. Therefore, I admit that the main incentive for me to listen was the Tennant/Branagh factor. To have these two extraordinary Shakespearian actors together in the same drama, radio or not, was something I had to experience.

Life and Fate, in its adaptation for the radio, is an eight hours dramatisation divided into 13 radio plays, which took over the drama slots of radio 4 in the course of a week in September. Though there is an order to the chain of events of the different plays, they each stand alone as an independent story. The main characters, the Shaposhnikov family and Viktor Shtrum (Kenneth Branagh) have an arc that spreads over several plays. In between those plays, are seemingly unrelated plays, like Journey, with never-to -be-repeated characters. These plays ostensibly give a more generic overview of a time and a place, but in effect create an emotional and at times disturbing intimacy that has a depressingly chilling impact.  

The episodic nature of the Life and Fate adaptation, interweaving arc stories with stand alone stories creates a sense of fragments of life and fractions of fate, pieced together to portray a sad but honest, painful but loving, remarkable picture of Russia and its people at the Second World War.   
Listening to Life and Fate I felt there was something quite different about it in comparison with other Russian work I have encountered before. Yet at the same time it gave a sense of capturing a true character of a certain time and place. It is hard for me to put my finger on what it is exactly that makes Life and FateLife and Fate lacks intellect; it has a lot of love towards it and within the Russian image, it highly values it. different. Perhaps its tone was more personal and tender, while other Russian literature often feels like a flood of overwhelming pure intellect without mercy. This doesn’t mean that

The criticism towards Stalin, and the hatred and fear towards Nazi Germany are clear. However, the sobering process of facing the truth behind Stalinism is not easy and not obvious.  Life and Fate is not angry or dogmatic; it is hurting, it is conflicted, heartbroken and full of sorrow and compassion as it painfully reveals that the communist party and its leader are not what they promised to be and probably have a lot more in common with Nazi Germany than anyone who had genuine optimistic belief in them is willing or even capable of believing. Life and Fate has taken the side of the people rather than the nation, which might not be a very communist thing to do, but it makes for a compelling and incredibly moving drama.

It might be David Tennant and Kenneth Branagh that made me want to listen to Life and Fate’s radio adaptation in the first place, but it was the extensive outstanding cast that made me listen to it twice. Both Tennant and Branagh are fantastically sweeping as Nikolai Krymov and Viktor Shtrum, and both characters broke my heart in very different ways. However, the rest of the cast does not fall behind with incredible performances from Greta Scacchi, who plays Lyuda, Janet Suzman, who plays Anna Shtrum and many more excellent performances. Being more used to visual kind of acting I was amazed just how much the vocal nuances, tone of voice and the actual contents of the plays has helped me in conjuring the characters and situations in my mind. The revelation of the dramatisation and the actress that really caught my ear and captured my heart is Raquel Cassidy who plays the magnificent and unique Zhenya Shaposhnikov. Minor spoiler alert: hers and Krymov’s love story is romantic without the romance, dramatic without drama and intimate without them ever being together in the same place at the same time. I am a sap for a great love story and theirs is horrible and wonderful at the same time. End of minor spoiler.

I know the subject matter of Life and Fate is heavy and mostly depressing, to put it mildly, and though I love me a depressing story, especially in winter, I understand that it might not be very appealing, but as much as it may be a tragic story, if you let it, it will wrap you with its loving Russian hug and keep you warm where it really matters.