There is a certain kind of writing in Russian fiction known as the skaz,m in which the narrator adopts a conversational tone in telling his tale, frequently addressing the reader directly. Among other things, this permits an intimacy on the narrator's part that makes his story more immediate. It is the skazm technique that Anatoli Rybakov employs in his masterly new novel. It makes this incredibly gripping tale even more moving than it might ordinarily be.
The novel (Rybakov's tenth) is partly autobiographical, recounting the story of a large, closely knit Russian Jewish family from the beginning of the century through World War II. The narrator, Boris Yakovlevich Ivanovsky, gives us the history of his family and tells us of domestic events in the lives of its various members.
At one point he comments on how insignificant his domestic depictions seem in comparison with the cataclysmic political events that were to come later on, but then muses: "Still, perhaps it's little stories like this one, maybe millions of them, that make up the history of mankind?"
With the beginning of the war in June 1941, the lives of the Ivanovskys and other town inhabitants are changed forever. Boris is one of many young men summoned north for active military service, and much of the ensuing tale of his town's fate he tells us secondhand, having learned the details from the few survivors he later meets.
Forced to register themselves, branded with yellow six-pointed stars, and moved into the ghetto, the Jews in Boris's town gradually meet their horrendous fates. Starved, beaten, tortured, mutilated, shot, and even crucified, bit by bit the Jewish population is decimated by the Germans, until only a small fraction of the original populace remains. Somehow, miraculously, the few hundred left with any strength or will manage to plan an escape. Convinced that "only resistance offered death with honor," they secretly acquire weapons and finally try to flee into a dense forest nearby.
Interwoven throughout the course of the novel are the themes of familial love and the maintenance of one's personal integrity. With humor and thinly veiled bitterness, Rybakov shows how these two concerns enable the members of Boris's family to survive happily despite everyday setbacks in times of peace, and to endure courageously in the face of overwhelming terrors in times of war.
Boris tells us that his story is only "a pale shadow of what really took place." But through Rybakov's use of the skazm technique, the shocking details of "the vileness to which people can sink" affect us almost as if the characters in "Heavy Sand" were figures from our own lives. After I finished this excellent novel, my thoughts returned to the epigraph, Job's cry: "Oh that my grief were thoroughly weighed, and my calamity laid in the balances together! For now it would be heavier than the sand of the sea: therefore my wo rds are swallowed up."