‘Sir, we’re here.’
In 1941, Germany invaded Russia. In the middle of the Russian winter, a German medical unit establishes a field hospital at Yasnaya Polyana, the former estate of Count Leo Tolstoy. The caretaker of the estate is Katerina Trubetzkaya, a patriotic Soviet woman who is convinced that Germany cannot win this war. The main German character in this novel is Paul Bauer, a skilled surgeon in his forties, widowed.
Katerina Trubetzkaya is surprised to learn that Paul Bauer had read ‘War and Peace’ and is a fan of Tolstoy. A tentative friendship forms. They talk of their different pasts, life experiences and expectations, about literature.
Meanwhile, the war rages around them. The commanding officer, Julius Metz becomes increasingly unstable as events unfold – poor decisions are made, and scarce supplies are wasted. There are harrowing descriptions of the conditions under which surgery is performed, of the injuries sustained. And everywhere, the shade of Leo Tolstoy.
Conquering Tolstoy becomes an obsession for Julius Metz, manic on a cocktail of amphetamines, while an appreciation of literature is one of the connections between Paul Bauer and Katerina Trubetzkaya. They may be on opposite sides in this war, but they have a lot in common.
And then, surprisingly, about halfway through the novel the focus shifts. A series of letters between Paul Bauer and Katerina Trubetzkaya which start in 1967 are interpolated into the narrative and the story shifts between the war and after the war. The ending I thought we were moving towards becomes something different, and a far richer story as a consequence.
Part love story, part war story, this novel is also a tribute to the enduring power of writing, of literature. Mr Conte brings both his characters and their surroundings to life.
I have finished reading this novel, but I am still thinking about it.
Note: My thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins Publishers Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.