Soviet laureate's novel a disappointment; Pack of Wolves, by Vasil Bykov. Translated by Lynn Solotaroff. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell. $10.50.
Certain books seem to amount to less than tham the sum of their parts: A poorly constructed plot, insufficient characterization, or simply an intangible "something" missing make such works fall short of their potential, leaving the reader curiously frustrated.
"Pack of Wolves," by Vasil Bykov, is one such work. Bykov, author of numerous novels dealing with the theme of war and a medalist designated "Laureate of the Government of the USSR," has created a strangely inconsistent work here.
The opening is promising: We meet the retired soldier Levchuk, who has finally succeeded in tracking down Victor Platonov, whom he once rescued as a tiny baby during World War II. The first chapter is a sensitive portrayal of Levchuk's emotions, as he anticipates his reunion with the now-grown Victor, last seen 30 years ago as an infant. In pondering their meeting, Levchuk reflects on such reunions: "You would suddenly be filled with memories, and amazement, and a sense of awkardness at discovering that the person you had known and remembered was not the stranger standing before you, but another. . . "
We share in Levchuk's eagerness and apprehension, and this makes it all the more disturbing when the present action is subsequently dropped until the final chapter. What ensues are Levchuk's reminiscences about his flight, together with several other Russians, from the Germans and traitorous partisans (the "pack of wolves") during the war.
While this story contains a number of noteworthy strengths -- in particular, the depiction of Griboyed, one of Levchuk's comrades, and the description of Levchuk's reactions when Klava, another companion, gives birth to a son (Victor) -- much of the action fails to hold our interest because the characters lack the necessary development. We do not learn enough about their thoughts, hopes, and fears to engage our full sympathy.
When, in the final chapter, the action returns to the present, and we learn that Levchuk "cherished his memories of the past; his life had meaning because he had once saved a tiny baby from a pack of wolves," the impact of his experience does not have the force it might have.