If there ever had been, if there ever were, somewhere in the world, another reality, it now remained in human memory as no more than a recollection, tinged more by doubt and sadness than by nostalgia. (p. 173)
In Gate of the Sun, his novel about the Palestinian struggle, Elias Khoury writes: ‘how sad it is when revolutions come to an end. The end of a revolution is the ugliest thing there is. A revolution is like a person. It gets senile and rambles and wets itself.’ Unforgiving Years, part-thinly veiled autobiography and part-surrealistic memoir, is about the end of a revolution. Written by Victor Serge (Comrade Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, a man who – like Arthur Koestler – seemed to be at the front-lines of all the significant events of the first half of the 20th century, going wherever ‘barricades were erected‘), Unforgiving Years tracks the attempts of D, once a major actor in the Russian Revolution (as Serge was), now disillusioned with what the Soviet Union has turned into (as Serge became), and determined to renounce the Communist Party and flee to the ends of the earth (as Serge did).
Written in dreamlike, almost hallucinatory prose, Unforgiving Years is divided into four parts, connected to each other only by a single common thread – the travails of Daria, D’s ‘friend and fellow revolutionary.’ Part One opens in Paris, on the eve of the Second World War. D – ostensibly on duty as a Soviet spy – has finally decided to break with the Communist Party, and turned in his resignation letter (‘Everything was falling apart, only risk itself remained, impoverished, coarsened by the loss of any real justification.’ (p. 49)) Expecting to be hunted down and assassinated – the fate of all defectors – D moves frantically through Paris to get his affairs in order, and flee to Mexico. As Paris braces itself for a war that it is unprepared for (‘One of the charms of Paris, unique in the world, is that people here neglect ferociousness – that power – and the organized brutality that drives great empires. ‘ (p. 64)), D and his companion and fellow-defector, Nadine, keep a half-step ahead of Communist Party agents, while D struggles with his own conscience, and coming to terms with the moral failure of the revolutionary project, and everything that gave life meaning (quoting Blok, ‘hearts once full of enthusiasm/Have nothing left but fatal nothingness…’ (p. 83)).
Part Two takes us to the Siege of Leningrad at the height of the Second World War, told from the perspectives of the besieged Soviet soldiers (‘War is a time for submission, for being rational; one can’t want anything for oneself beyond the fleeting moment. Klim spoke reasonably.’ (p. 123)) and citizens (‘The buildings had aged by a couple of centuries in a few short seasons, just as men and women looked decades older in only a few months; the children had aged a lifetime before knowing what life was.’ (p. 123) If Part One was about introspection, about an individual’s interior landscape even as the world presses down from above, Part Two is about the starkness of existence, even as a hint of reflectivity remains (‘There were ways and ways of dying slowly while remaining partly alive.’ (p. 124)) But even that is stripped away in Part Three, where the action shifts a German city at the tail-end of the War, ravaged by the bombings of the Allies and the Soviet advance. Here, life has been pared down to less than its essentials (‘So inexorably did the present annul the past, so simply, so mercilessly did this present perpetuate itself, that no room was left for the anticipation of any other future.’ (p. 184)) (Perhaps) interestingly, the story is told from the perspective of Brigitte, a German citizen and wife of a Nazi soldier, caught up in the dying embers of the War, reflecting a narrative empathy that was controversial for its time (and still is).
And in Part Four, we return to the haunting interiority of Part One. Here, the gaslit streets of Paris are replaced by the Juan Rulfo-esque Mexican landscape of vaguely-undefined horror. Daria – in Paris with D, at the defence of Leningrad, and in the advance upon Germany – makes her final journey, fleeing across the oceans to join D and Nadine in Mexico, little knowing that the agents of the Communist Party are on her heels (‘Some of them escaped with nothing but a shirt and a few papers, enriched – as well as ravaged – by ideas.’ (p. 281)) The novel now exudes a sense of exhaustion, of a death-like bone weariness, and the feeling that everything was staked for ‘the splendor of living in some distant, still-unimaginable future’ (p. 50), nothing gained, and that now, everything ends in meaninglessness.
In Turgenev’s On the Eve, Andrei Bersyenev is described as being ‘sad with a sadness that had nothing noble in it.’ D expresses a similar sentiment at the beginning of Unforigiving Years, when he contemplates ‘risk … coarsened by the loss of any real justification’, and in some ways, the entire novel charts that course: the peeling away of an illusion. ‘In order to exist fully, the will demands a goal’ (p. 47): we have this wry observation early on, a sentiment reminiscent of Ghassan Kanafani’s “man is a cause“, and everything that follows is an unraveling of that goal (here, the Soviet-communist promise of ‘another reality’), and the fate of the will in a world where the goal is gone, and there is nothing to replace it. So, D can look back with wistful envy at ‘the fortunate communards, to die with all the future before them’ (p. 77) (perhaps the only time in literary history that someone has appended the adjective ‘fortunate’ to describe the communards!), while all that remains for those (like him) who are no longer apparatchiks in thrall to the Soviet Union, is a ‘desolate frankness’. (p. 77)
In some ways, Unforgiving Years is similar to Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous play, ‘Dirty Hands‘. ‘Dirty Hands’ is set in the imaginary country of Illyria, and follows the fortunes of a Communist party apparatchik (Hugo) as he tries to liquidate a senior leader (Hoederer) deemed a traitor by the Party’s executive. Although he succeeds in the end, inevitably enough, Hoederer is subsequently rehabilitated by the Party many years after his assassination, and Hugo must then disavow his act, the act that had singularly provided meaning to his life. Hugo’s internal conflict resembles D’s in many ways, but perhaps with one significant difference: at the end of ‘Dirty Hands’, Sartre does not offer his readers the possibility of hope; however, despite its grimmer tone, Unforgiving Years never quite allows that last kernel to die. At the very beginning, D observes that ‘if the unbelievable were not sometimes a reality, there would be no possibility of struggle.’ (p. 8) And, soon afterwards: ‘At least admit the possibility. All that remains is to make it happen.’ (p. 47) Indeed – and strikingly – Serge himself wrote, elsewhere, that ‘the ardent voyage continues,/the course is set on hope’ (lines that would title his biography). That insistence that something human always remains, at the end, is what makes Unforgiving Years, for all its tragic setting, a compelling work.
Equally compelling is Serge’s prose style, a perfect complement to his themes. An almost lyrically atmospheric flow of language is punctuated by observations of stiletto-like sharpness: ‘D liked him, to whatever atrophied extent he was still capable of friendship’ (p. 12), ‘ … one of those Siberian landscapes that lends a fresh alacrity to sadness (provided you’re not in captivity)’ (p. 16), ‘she put her money on a heavy breakup scene, with a sprinkling of sentiment over the top like confectioner’s sugar on yesterday’s buns…’ (p. 23), ‘there’ll be time to spare for sorting out memories …’ (p. 35), ‘most couples make up, or annihilate each other in ways that provide no pickings for crime reporters.’ (p. 78)
These, to use Serge’s own words in conclusion, are scattered throughout Unforgiving Years like ‘a dusting of stars’ (p. 175), and these are what make it such a unique novel.