Unforgiving Years

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

Victor Serge was a complicated radical, a man who left France to join the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1919, only to be later imprisoned and then exiled for his screeds against Stalin. In addition to his uncompromising autobiography Memoirs of a Revolutionary, he wrote works of fiction, notably The Case of Comrade Tulayev. His final novel, Unforgiving Years, completed just before his death in Mexico City in 1947 and only now making its appearance in English, is one of the more harrowing stories to come out of the Second World War.

In many ways recalling the best of Orwell and Solzhenitsyn, this bleak novel is more philosophical than political, offering an impressionistic yet intense portrayal of life in wartime. The story opens in a tense pre-invasion Paris, as secret agent D and his young lover, Nadine, make hasty plans to escape the approaching Germans. D also attempts to convince his old comrade Daria to flee with them, but she stays put (we later catch up with her while she participates in the Siege of Leningrad). The book’s haunted core is a portrait of “liberated” Berlin in all its bombed-out squalor. In scenes like this one—with its poignant portrayal of non-Nazi Germans—Serge’s intellectual rigor seems in perfect sync with his highly sympathetic imagination.

There’s a sense throughout that Serge’s characters are too uncompromising for their own good, inspiring both our admiration and concern. The final chapter brings the reader back to D and Nadine, who have reinvented themselves on a coffee plantation in Mexico. Here, D learns that the New World offers little protection against an offended dictator with a long reach.

Drew Toal

By Victor Serge. Translated by Richard Greeman. New York Review Books, $15.99 paperback.