But at that moment I only had the sensation that they were pushing us, me, off a cliff to our deaths and I was clinging on with my hands and legs and my stomach, refusing to give up and not wishing to believe that this was the end, but simultaneously realising to the point of terror that this was inevitably going to happen. I might have been, could have been somewhere quite different now. But is it possible that there is something else on Earth, when this is happening here?
(from Khatyn, page 202)
I must admit that when I picked up Khatyn by Ales Adamovich, translated from Russian by Glenys Kozlov, Franes Longman, and Sharon McKee, I assumed it was about the Katyn massacre of Polish nationals by the NKVD in 1940, but it actually is about the massacre of the residents of Khatyn, a village in the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (now Belarus) in 1943. Regardless of my mistake, after reading that Khatyn was censored in the USSR but is finally available uncensored and in English, I knew it was going to be an intense book.
Khatyn is a novel narrated by Flyora, a former Soviet partisan from World War II who, accompanied by his wife and son, is reunited with the members of his detachment on a bus traveling to the Khatyn memorial. Because the My Lai massacre that occurred in 1968 during the Vietnam War is mentioned, the book is set around that time. Flyora has gone blind, so even though the men he fought alongside have changed over the years, he remembers them as they were more than two decades ago.
Much of the novel takes place during World War II as Flyora remembers the horrifying things he witnessed and endured as a teenage partisan. He recounts the time he dug through a grave to find a rifle so he could join the partisans, his “love” (more like hero worship) of Kasach, the commander of his detachment, and how a battle with the Germans left him temporarily deaf and dependent on Glasha, who later becomes his wife. When the Germans surround the detachment and Flyora and Glasha are separated from the group, they head toward Flyora’s village, and after finding the village burned to the ground, they make their way to the marshy “islands” where villagers and wounded partisans hide from the Germans.
A search for food eventually leads Flyora to the village of Perekhody, where talk of the Germans surrounding villages, locking the inhabitants (including women and children) in sheds and barns set afire, and mowing down those who try to escape with machine gun fire becomes a reality for him. These pages, in which Flyora witnesses the massacre, detailing it from the moment the Germans march in until he and a few others are forced to drive the cows out of the village, leaving the burning, screaming people behind, are probably the most intense I’ve ever read.
Khatyn is a novel that made it hard for me to sleep at night because I was so disturbed by its contents. However, there were some sentences that didn’t make sense, but whether due to typos or wrong word choices by the translators, I can’t say. “But we were so lightly packed together that I could not raise my hand to wipe it away.” (page 208) Did they mean tightly? “Several limes I felt a tug at my sleeve, as if a dog was pulling at my elbow.” (page 296) I assume they meant times? There were enough of these kinds of sentences that I couldn’t ignore them, but they honestly didn’t affect my reading or make the story less interesting.
The late Adamovich was a partisan himself, so his firsthand knowledge of the movements of the detachments and their inner workings made the novel come to life. He did a great job showing how Flyora went from being young and cheerful, eager to be a partisan, to someone old before his time, exemplifying the ways in which war alters people forever. Moving between the war memories and the bus reunion enabled Adamovich to comment on the war. Flyora has numerous philosophical discussions with a friend, Boris Boky, about how the Germans justified the killing because they believed the villagers were “Stalinist bandits,” the concept of “we” and how people outside this group could be considered not worthy of even living, and how the massacre at My Lai could have occurred during the Vietnam War after all that was known about the destruction of these Soviet villages during World War II. However, these discussions grew tiring by the end of the book, and the last eight to 10 pages were difficult to get through, mainly because the grotesque, inhuman acts witnessed by Flyora stood on their own without any need for commentary.
Still, Khatyn is an important book that deserves a place on the shelves of anyone fascinated by the history of World War II. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart, though. It’s the kind of book that gives you nightmares, and when you wake up and realize you were only dreaming, you cry for those for whom the burning agony was a reality.
Disclosure: I received Khatyn from Glagoslav Publications for review.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.