'THE SIEGE' Poet turns to war in tale of survival
The book can evoke shivers as well as other sensations.
By ROB STOUT
SPECIAL TO THE VINDICATOR
& quot;The Siege, & quot; by Helen Dunmore (Grove Press, $24).
When a poet turns to fiction, the result is usually interesting. The work may not always be on the level of their poetry, although there is that occasion when the fiction waxes stronger, richer and is more striking in imagery and immediacy.
Such is the case with Helen Dunmore's 9th novel set during the German stranglehold on Leningrad during the winter of 1941. Dunmore begins with a chilling piece of historical fact: a directive from the Nazi high command ordering armed forces to & quot;wipe Leningrad from the face of the earth. & quot;
She then takes readers inside the great imperial city as the German army begins its siege, cutting off food supplies and reducing daily life to barely imaginable destitution. As winter and famine close in, she tightens her own focus on a tiny apartment and its inhabitants, the Levin family.
Anna, the heroine of the story, lives and cares for her elderly father and six year old asthmatic brother Koyla. The three are soon joined by Marina, a former actress seeking refuge and Andrei with whom Anna falls in love. Together they suffer quiet privations precisely summoned by Dunmore: wallpaper boiled for the sustenance its glue provides and leather eaten from purses and schoolbags. Triumphantly, Andrei brings home a dead guinea pig salvaged from a hospital laboratory.
& quot;This is an invisible disaster, & quot; ponders one character, & quot;like the death of a hive in winter. & quot;
Outside, bombs and shells rain down indiscriminately, winter snows finish off the weak and infirm & quot;sitting on park benches swathed in snow & quot; and survivors are left to roam the streets with & quot;blurred, starved eyes & quot; sunken into faces & quot;the color of old candle grease. & quot; Yet the colossal drama that rages all around shrivels in significance to the individual stories of personal survival.
Inside the apartment events are played out through intense relationships. Anna and Andrei's romance begins fast and furious keeping with the pace of wartime when life is often cut short. Meanwhile, Anna's father wastes away, his dying days taking on a Tolstoyan gravity until he turns into a & quot;silent gray thing & quot; laying in a frozen bedroom.
Such travails are built up to evoke shivers, as well as other sensations to the senses. Taste becomes & quot;ecstasy & quot; when a spoonful of all but extinct honey is sipped, or the warmth Anna's body feels when warmed by a fire fed by her dead father's precious encyclopedias.
When the siege is finally broken, survivors emerge to stare at the mass graves of countless victims, their numbed misery bringing to mind Stalin's own prophetic words, & quot;One death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic. & quot;
Dunmore captures this sense of incomprehension and estrangement in bold, unexpected detail. The result is a sobering, deeply moving account of human life etched out with an intensity one might expect from a good novelist, not to mention a good poet.