I have been extraordinarily busy this last week, unpacking from a move, writing a lot of guest blogs and Q&As for the upcoming release of my book–exactly one week away–and it is a busy, exciting time. I have worked for a long time on a novel trilogy set in Russia during the Second World War and I remembered, albeit too late, that on the night of June 21-22, 1941, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the mass invasion of the Soviet Union (France had officially surrendered on the same day–June 21, 1940–the year before). That was a long time ago–72 years, if my math is correct–and very few people who were old enough to remember that terrible day are still with us. Hitler’s armies nearly overran the Soviet Union that summer, reaching the very gates of Leningrad and Moscow; they marched to the Caucasus in the south, and were finally stopped, overextended and surrounded, at Stalingrad on the Volga in the winter of 1942-43. Tens of millions of Russians died in in those years, in the life-or-death struggle they remember as the Great Patriotic War.
I have studied this conflict, researching the Great Patriotic War in order to present the stories of the people (characters) involved. I have read many memoirs and letters, and there is an idea one book presented which has always stuck with me: the arrogant condescension of the living. We (the living, at the moment) immediately assume that somehow we are more alive than those who lived long ago. That is largely due to the fragmentary nature of our connection to the past, especially once you start looking at societies more than 200 years old. It is difficult to imagine flesh on ancient bones scattered in collapsed tombs, to mine emotion out of stone inscriptions or put ourselves at a family breakfast table in 13th century France. But we cannot possibly be more “alive” than they were, of course. Yes, we are currently alive and they are dead, but our lifespan is little more than a blink in the passage of time. Could we feel more love than an ancient Greek mother cradling her newborn did? Can we be prouder of our son’s accomplishments than an ancient Aboriginal father once was? Can we feel fear more intensely than a Tommy at the Somme? Impossible. Yet, when we think of them, they often present cold, expressionless faces peering back at us from the mists of the past. Their monuments–the sphinx, Stonehenge, Angkor Wat–can all seem grand but empty, as if built by armies of nameless, faceless, ghosts.
Their lives are lost to us–unlike Alexander and Napoleon, they left no personal mark, no legacy–and they are therefore meaningless to us, their lives dissolved away without bang or whimper.
But they were alive. Just as alive as we are now, breathing the same (or similar) air. How do we connect to them? We carry their genetic legacy in our bodies and brains, in our hair and eyes and in our brain chemicals–we are a DNA milkshake concocted by thousands of ancestors. How do we connect to them?–this is where we discover one of the magical functions of art. Great nonfiction books can get us closer to the lives of dead, exploring clues and facts. The ancient Greek mother made a bracelet for her child. The Aboriginal father mixed red pigment and water into paint and pressed his hand, along with his son’s, on the underside of a huge rock. The Tommy at the Somme wrote a letter to his parents every day he was in the trenches. Great fiction, however, can put us in their shoes, breathing the same breath, loving the same loves, puffing up with the same pride, gasping in the same terror in the mud.
Great fiction can pierce the mists of history. Great fiction can crack the condescension of the living and bring the dead to us, alive.