Europe Central by William Vollmann is one of the best novels that I have read in a long while. For those of you out there who too varying extents might be tired of WWII themed movies, books and computer games, I assure you that this is a cut above.
Far from D-Day worship, or simplistic, voyeuristic recounts of totalitarian terror (It does have plenty of this though), this book ranks up with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Vollmann is able to echo surreal aspects and uncanny parallels of Pynchon with Grossman’s epic, sweeping narrative of personalities, and moral choice, culminating in fate with a capital F.
In short, it’s epic, weird, and brilliant. It’s history masquerading as a novel. It’s also a love story.
The book is composed primarily of short stories, some of which take place over many instalments, some take place in large, nay, endless chapters, but best of all they overlap and reference each other quite seamlessly. Thus a character which has been the subject of a pervious chapter will appear momentarily in the chapter of a very different character experiencing a very different story. Again, this is well done.
Vollmann has collected a fascinating array of characters, most of whom where real people. The main characters in this sense are Soviet composer Dimitry Shoshtakovitch, German SS man Kurt Gerstein, the Field Marshall von Paulus, and the traitor-general Vlasov. There are many other characters, much like any good Russian novel.
You are introduced to the character’s inner world of thoughts, emotions and their circumstances which build slowly towards a moral choice. This choice and the character’s fate is intertwined; Vollmann is fascinated by both in equal measure, yet feels no need to come to an ultimate conclusion; i.e., “there is/is no fate”. Each character, regardless of ultimate moral evaluation is presented kindly; even as we are witness their failings, self-destruction, or at least, idiosyncrasies, we cannot help but have sympathy for them and the terrible situation they have to navigate (or not).
Not unlike Pynchon, Vollmann adopts many different “voices”. This is the weakest part of the book, because Vollmann has trouble keeping them strait it seems. In the opening chapters and ending chapters, it ranges from annoying to confusing (in the vast middle part of the book, it’s fine and is not a problem). Thus the character speaking will switch or change and then change back with literally nothing to connote the change in voice. Occasionally, I thought it was cool and interesting, most of the time it was confusing and annoying, only one in five instances of this would I say it was well done.
This book is worth reading for the history, which seems fairly well researched, as well as the artistic, mythological treatment of WII that Vollmann wades into here. He isn’t afraid to explore the link between Germanic mythology, Wagner, Nazisim, and Hitler’s personal psychology. He does an “artistic” version of history that I think goes down quite well.
It’s also worth reading for the interplay of moral choice and the idea of Fate.
Lastly, one of the most significant characters is one that never gets a short story of (her) own. She fascinates and is mentioned in nearly every chapter and every character. This is the love story that borders on the mythical; she is real, but not real in many ways. She represents much more than she even seems to know or want. Again, this is well done.
An epic read.