The lingering effects of war and peace

The Tolstoy Estate
Steven Conte
Fourth Estate, $32.99

"A novel for people who still believe in the saving grace of literature in dark times," proclaims the blurb on my advanced copy of The Tolstoy Estate. Thankfully, the book is better than that. Steven Conte’s second novel, coming 13 years after his PM's Award-winning The Zookeeper’s War, does not need to hang onto Tolstoyan coattails.

Readers are plunged into World War II, only to find that the "they" in this book are the Russians, the "we", Germans. If this constitutes an about-turn for older Australians, the circumstances will help: the story takes place not at the battlefront, but in a surgical unit in a field hospital where the only goal is to save lives – even, once, that of a Russian.

Steven Conte lines up with his latest novel, The Tolstoy Estate.

Steven Conte lines up with his latest novel, The Tolstoy Estate.Credit:Anthony Brady

Fascination derives from the site of the hospital: it occupies both wings of Yasnaya Polyana, former home of Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy. The Germans stationed there are preoccupied with their occupation of Tula, a large town nearby: it has not occurred to them that history may be about to emulate that earlier Russian triumph and highpoint of War and Peace, the unprecedented defeat of Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

Paul Bauer, a German army surgeon rereading a translation of Tolstoy’s epic novel, is deeply moved to find himself in the very place where it was written. He is also entertained by the (true) story that the two separate buildings that constitute Yasnaya Polyana are the remaining wings of an even larger house whose central portion Tolstoy, when a young soldier serving in the Crimea, lost in a card-game.

The rest of Bauer’s unit – anaesthetists, dentists, physicians, all less literary – concentrate on healing. The sheer number of casualties, the detailed accounts of life-and-death procedures, the many amputations (even of eyelids lost to frostbite), the agonising, split-second decisions, the marathon operating sessions (one lasting 37 hours straight) are riveting in the telling and convincing in terms of medical detail.


Equally compelling and almost as unbearable are the descriptions of the cold, sometimes down to a punishing -41 degrees. Vicious winds sting frozen faces with minute chunks of ice; a visit to the outdoor latrines becomes an endurance test. One almost wishes that Conte’s best writing were less vivid.
Some of it is a little less successful.

The official Custodian of Yasnaya Polyana, Katerina, is a hostile, mouthy, fortyish Soviet smart alec, whose expressed aim is to let the Germans Get Away with Nothing. Not totally unattractive despite her rebarbative style, her casting as the widowed Bauer’s new love feels like an authorial determination to avoid cliche; it remains unconvincing almost because it is so repeatedly referred to, told but not shown.

Katerina gives every scornful sign that romance with the enemy is the last thing she wants, until of course, after the unit has been moved away from Yasnaya Polyana to perform duties at the front, then back again in order to support casualties from the Tula battle, comes the Kiss, which Katerina initiates by launching herself onto a gratified if astonished Paul.

Mutual love is declared and briefly consummated, but before there can be any resolution (we are only halfway through the book) huger events intervene: the Germans fail again to (re)take Tula, presaging the coming Soviet ascendancy; Ribbentrop announces that Germany has declared war on the United States; the Soviets launch a counter-offensive around Moscow that forces the Wehrmacht to fall back; and Metz, the other surgeon in the unit, suffers a mental breakdown that becomes obvious to all when he orders the body of Tolstoy to be exhumed and used as a bargaining chip to gain "spiritual ascendancy over the enemy". This idiocy so alienates Katerina she spits in Paul’s face.

The story then leaps forward to 1967, with Paul writing to her from Nuremberg and Katerina replying from an academic conference necessarily outside the USSR. An exchange of letters is repeated in 1968 and 1975, though the story-thread reverts each time to 1941.

As the Germans make their final retreat from Yasnaya Polyana it strikes the helmeted Paul that "what most needed protection was not his head but his heart". He is the hero of a novel over-determined in its thwarting of "novelistic" outcomes, but deeply impressive in its concern for various kinds of healing.

Judith Armstrong’s novel War and Peace and Sonya is set in Yasnaya Polyana.




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