Review for 'The Siege', by Helen Dunmore, Penguin Books (2002), pp. 194
The frontispiece of this novel is a historical archive document - the sinister declaration from the German Naval Staff, relaying Hitler's order that Leningrad (formerly St Petersburg) was to be annihilated and its inhabitants starved to death (They would otherwise have to be fed!)
Although it was published some years ago, an analysis of this un-putdown-able novel was recently featured in The Guardian newspaper's Saturday 'Review'. Dunmore really gets you inside what it must have been like to be an inhabitant of Leningrad during the first, horrific winter of its 900 day siege by German forces during WW II. Although the author is not herself Russian, you feel completely immersed in Russianness.
We follow the struggle for survival of Anna and her constant care for her young brother Kolya; her ailing, war-wounded father, Mikhail; and her father's long-standing friend and one time mistress, the actress Marina - a non-person as far as the regime was concerned and therefore dangerous to know.
The story begins with life in the city shortly before Operation Barbarossa, the unforeseen German onslaught that broke the Hitler-Stalin pact. We live the everyday life of scouring the city and queuing for food at the first rumour of something extra in stock; the acceptance that the party elite have a parallel, privileged existence; the pleasures of the countryside and its opportunities for foraging and growing one's own vegetables; the constant need to guard one's tongue for fear of being denounced to the authorities as a spy, saboteur or Trotskyite, even if out of jealousy for having a bigger apartment... And the fear heightened by Mikhail's being a writer who has a history of failing to toe the party line.
Dunmore vividly depicts the seasons on the river Neva, Lake Ladoga and surrounding marshes where Peter the Great chose to site his new city of St Petersburg - the joys of winter, in spite of the cold, the anxious wait for the spring... All now marred by the onset of the German invasion and the need first to evacuate the children - a nightmare of organisation in the face of the constantly swelling number of refugees and the bombing of the railways before the net finally closes on the half-completed task. And Kolya stays.
Food is a constant torment - how to get it, how to eke it out as the rations are cut and cut again. 'You wake hours before it's light, from hunger. Hunger has burrowed deep into your stomach and is eating away at you. You turn, moaning and trying to dislodge it. You taste the foulness of your breath' (p 191). Anna's daring foray to their dacha to harvest what she can of the vegetables she so lovingly sowed in happier times ends with her trashing what she was unable to carry away on her bicycle (The Germans mustn't have it!). And then on her return journey the loss of some of her hard-won crop confiscated by militiamen at a road block, and her luck in not being arrested as a speculator...
And then there's the friend turned enemy - a Leningrad winter and the bone-chilling cold of semi-starvation in an unheated apartment. Anna's quest for a wood-burning stove unveils the sordid lives of speculators and the worthlessness of valuables against the need for warmth and bread. Even the furniture and books have no value except as fuel for the stove.
In the background, the battle against the German forces rages on. Anna's hands were raw from digging trenches and tank traps; her new-found friend, Andrei, in the thick of it as a medical student trying to cope with exhaustion, lack of food and the constant flow of casualties - and his burgeoning relationship with Anna.
Meanwhile, the dead pile up - frozen solid and unburied. But at least if they die early in the month there will be extra rations for the survivors until the monthly renewal of ration cards falls due. In a dog-eat-dog world - metaphorically speaking, as real dogs had long since been eaten - to collapse from hunger, cold and exhaustion in the street is to invite the stealing of one's ration card and almost certain death from starvation. An yet there are still individual acts of kindness...
Tempted as I am, I won't spoil the story by further commentary. Read it for yourself. You'll be well rewarded!