Set in the Soviet Union from World War II until the early 1990s, A Hero’s Daughter portrays the rise and decline of the Soviet Union through the story of Ivan Dimitrovich Davidov and his family. For his extraordinary bravery and courage beyond the call of duty at the Battle of Stalingrad, Ivan is awarded his country’s highest military honor: Hero of the Soviet Union. Married after the war to Tatyana, the medical orderly who found him barely breathing amid a pile of corpses after another apocalyptic battle late in the war, they have a daughter, Olya, who grows up in the glow of her father’s reputation.
In 1980, the beautiful Olya, now seventeen, assigned as an interpreter during the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, commits an indiscretion with a French athlete that throws her straight into the waiting arms of the KGB. As the years roll by, Olya, more and more deeply implicated in espionage, despairs at her fate as a “political prostitute,” while her father, equally used by the State, becomes increasingly disillusioned and unruly, until he is arrested for drunken and disorderly conduct. Finally the lives of father and daughter intersect in an utterly moving and heartrending conclusion.
“Nobody surpasses Makine as a maker of stunning visuals . . . He may really be his generation’s Chekhov and Proust.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A remarkable novel . . . Enormously powerful.” —TheDaily Mail
“It carries the unmistakable stamp of historical and human truth . . . Subtle and powerful.” —The Sunday Telegraph
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HOW FRAGILE AND STRANGE EVERYTHING IS down here on earth. ...
What his life had depended on was a fragment of tarnished mirror held in the fingers, blue with cold, of a medical orderly, slim as a young girl.
For there he lay, in this vernal meadow churned up by tanks, amid hundreds of greatcoats, all solidified during the night into an icy mass. The jagged ends of shattered beams bristled upward from a dark crater to the left of them. Close at hand, its wheels sunk into a half collapsed trench, an antitank gun pointed up at the sky.
Before the war, from reading in books, he used to picture battlefields quite differently: soldiers carefully lined up on the fresh grass, as if, before dying, they had all had time to adopt a particular significant posture, one suggested by death. In this way each corpse would be perceived in the isolation of its own unique encounter with mortality. And each of their faces could be studied, this one with his eyes uplifted toward the clouds, as they drifted slowly away, that one pressing his cheek against the black earth.
Which is why, when he was first skirting that meadow covered with dead, he had noticed nothing. He walked along, painfully heaving his boots out of the ruts on the autumn road, his gaze fixed on the back of the man in front of him, the faded gray greatcoat on which droplets of mist glistened.
Just as they were emerging from a village — skeletons of half-burned izbas — a voice in the ranks behind him called out: "Holy shit! They sure had it in for the people!"
Then he took a look at the meadow that stretched away toward a nearby copse. He saw the muddy grass piled high with gray greatcoats, Russians and Germans, lying there at random, sometimes bundled together, sometimes isolated, face down against the earth. Then something no longer recognizable as a human body, a kind of brownish porridge, clothed in shreds of damp fabric.
And now he was one of these dead lumps himself Stretched out there. Trapped in a little puddle of frozen blood beneath his neck, his head lay at an angle with his body that was inconceivable for a living being. His elbows were so violently tensed under his back that he looked as if he were trying to wrench himself up from the ground. The sun was only just glinting on the frost-covered scrub. In the forest, where it bordered on the open land and in the shell craters, the violet shadow of the cold could still be observed.
There were four medical orderlies: three women and a man who was the driver for the field ambulance into which they loaded the wounded.
The front was receding toward the west. The morning was unbelievably still. In the frozen, sunlit air their voices rang out clear and remote. "We must finish before it thaws out, otherwise we'll be up to our knees!" All four of them were dropping with weariness. Their eyes, red from sleepless nights, blinked in the low sun. But they worked effectively and as a team. They treated the wounded, loaded them onto stretchers, and slowly made their way to the van, crunching the lace work of ice, turning over the dead and stumbling in the ruts. The third year of the war was slipping by. And this springtime meadow covered in frozen greatcoats lay somewhere in the torn heart of Russia.
Passing close by the soldier, the young orderly hardly paused. She glanced at the puddle of frozen blood, the glassy eyes and the eyelids distended by an explosion and muddied with earth. Dead. With a wound like that no one could survive. She continued on her way, then went back. Averting her gaze from those horrible bulging eyes, she took out his service record.
"Hey, Manya," she called out to her comrade, who was tending a wounded man ten paces away from her, "he's a Hero of the Soviet Union!"
"Wounded?" asked the other one.
"Afraid not ... dead."
She bent over him and began breaking the ice around his hair so as to lift up his head.
"Well, then! Come on, Tatyana. Let's carry mine."
And Manya was already slipping her hands under the armpits of her wounded man, whose head was white with bandages.
But Tatyana, her hands moist and numb, hastily sought out a little fragment of mirror in her pocket, wiped it with a scrap of bandage and held it to the soldier's lips.
In this fragment the blue of the sky appeared. A bush miraculously intact and covered in crystals. A sparkling spring morning. The glittering quartz of the hoarfrost, the brittle ice, the resonant, sunlit void of the air.
Suddenly the whole icy scene softened, grew warmer, became veiled with a little film of mist. Tatyana jumped to her feet, holding the fragment aloft, as the light cloud of breath rapidly faded, and called out: "Manya, he's breathing!"
The hospital had been improvised in a school building on two floors. The desks were piled high beneath the staircase, the bandages and medicines filled the cupboards, the beds were lined up in the classrooms; it had been made ready in great haste. When he recovered consciousness after four days in a deep coma, what he made out through the whitish veil that shrouded his eyes in a viscous and painful fog was the portrait of Darwin. Below it he made out a map on which could be seen diffuse patches of three colors — red for the Soviet Union, green for the English colonies, and purple for those of France. Then the torpor began to be dispelled. Little by little he came to be aware of the nurses and to feel a burning pain when they changed his dressings.
A week later he was able to exchange a few words with his neighbor, a young lieutenant, who had had both legs amputated. This young officer talked a great deal, as if trying to forget, or to keep boredom at bay. Sometimes he would reach out with his hand toward the bottom of his bed, feeling for his missing legs and, getting a grip on himself, would almost jovially and with a certain bravado come out with something the Hero of the Soviet Union had heard before and would hear again from the mouths of soldiers: "Goddamn it! My legs are blown to hell but they're still itching. Now that's a miracle of nature!"
It was this lieutenant who had told him the story of the mirror. He had caught occasional glimpses of the woman who had saved his life. From time to time she helped to bed down the wounded, or brought lunch around, but most of the time, as before, she was traveling over the fields in the ambulance.
When she came into their ward she often glanced timidly in his direction and, with his eyes half closed, as he felt the pain easing and giving way to periods of relief, he would smile lengthily.
He lay there, smiling, and what occupied his mind was very simple. He was reflecting that he was a Hero of the Soviet Union; he was still alive, his legs and arms were intact; yesterday they had for the first time opened the window to the warm spring air, with a dry earsplitting noise of coarse paper being torn, tomorrow he would try to get up, to walk a little, and, if he could manage to do so, he would get to know the slim young girl who kept stealing glances at him.
The next day he got up and made his way across the room toward the door, savoring the bliss of these still clumsy first steps. In the corridor he stopped by the open window and gazed with joyful hunger at the pale haze of the first greenery, the dusty little courtyard where the wounded were exercising, some of them on crutches, others with their arms in slings. He rolled a cigarette, lit it. He was hoping to meet her that very day, catch her eye ("On your feet already, after a wound like that!") and speak to her. He had given it much thought during those long days and long weeks. He would give her a little nod as he inhaled a mouthful of smoke, screw up his eyes and remark carelessly: "I have a feeling we've met somewhere before. ..." But occasionally it struck him that he should start the conversation quite differently. Yes, begin with the words he had one day heard in a play his class had gone to see. The actor, swathed in his black cloak, had observed to the heroine who was clad in a pale, frothy lace dress: "So it is to you, Madam, that I owe my life. ..." Words that struck him as splendidly noble.
Abruptly she appeared. Caught off his guard, he hastily rolled a cigarette and screwed up his eyes. He had not even noticed she was running. Her big boots and skirt were spattered with mud, her hair clung to her brow in moist locks. The Chief Medical Officer was coming out of the room next door. He saw her and stopped, as if to say something to her. But she rushed up to him and, with a sob that burst out like a laugh, she exclaimed: "Lev Mikhailovich! The van ... It's hit a mine. Near the stream ... The stream's burst its banks. ... I'd already got out to look for the ford. ..."
The Chief Medical Officer was already steering her into his office in the teachers' room. She went on jerkily: "Tolya tried to drive across the field. It was packed with mines ... It was such a blaze you couldn't get near it ... Manya ... Manya was burned as well. ..."
There was a rapid commotion in the corridor. The nurses came running, their first-aid kits in their hands. The Hero of the Soviet Union leaned out of the window. The Chief Medical Officer rushed across the school yard, dragging his leg that had been injured in a bombardment. You could hear the throbbing sound from the engine of the van, with its slatted sides reinforced by planks of green wood.
They only became acquainted later. They talked and listened to each other with feelings of joy they had never experienced before. Yet what did they have to talk about? Their two villages, one near Smolensk in the west, the other far away to the north in the marshlands of Pskov. A year of famine lived through in their childhood, something that now, in the midst of the war, seemed quite ordinary. A summer long ago spent in a Pioneer camp, fixed forever in a yellowed photograph — thirty little urchins with close-cropped heads, caught in a tense, somewhat wary pose, beneath a red banner: "Thank you, Comrade Stalin, for our happy childhood!" He was seated to the right of a robust Pioneer who was frowning behind his drum and, like all his comrades, stared spellbound at the camera. ...
One evening they walked out of the school, strolled slowly through the half-burned village, talking all the time, and stopped beside the very last izba. All that was left of it was a blackened carcass, a charred tracery in the cold spring air. Discernible within it was the gray shape of a great stove, covered with half-burned timbers. But all around it on the ground you could already see the blue gleam of new grass. Above a smashed-in fence the pale branch of an apple tree in bloom glowed timidly in the dusk.
They did not speak. He studied the inside of the izba, as if curious. She stroked the white clusters of apple blossom distractedly. "That's quite a stove!" he said finally. "It looks like ours. Ours had a shelf on the top just like that." Then, without further ado, he began talking, his gaze fixed on the izbas charred entrails.
"Where I lived it was summer when the Fritzes came. They occupied the village, took up their quarters. Two days later the partisans attacked in the middle of the night. They blew up the Fritzes' storehouse and killed several of them. But no chance of driving them out ... They weren't well-enough armed. They fell back into the forest. In the morning the Germans were furious. They set fire to the village at both ends. The people who tried to escape were killed on the spot. Even though there were only women and children left. Plus old men, of course. My mother had the baby with her — that was my brother, Kolka. When she saw what was happening, she pushed me out into the vegetable patch. 'Save yourself]' she said. 'Run toward the forest!' I started running but I saw the whole village was surrounded. So then I turned back. And they were already coming into our yard. There were three of them with submachine guns. In a little meadow near our izba there was a haystack. I thought: 'They'll never find me under that!' Then, just as if someone had whispered in my ear, I see a big basket next to the fence. You know, an enormous basket, with two handles. And I dive under it. I don't know how long I stayed in there. The Germans went into the house. And they killed my mother. ... She screamed for a long time. ... I was so scared I lay there stock still ... then I see them come out. One of them — I couldn't believe my eyes — he's holding Kolka head downward by his feet. The poor kid started to yell ... What saved my life then was my fear. If I'd had my wits about me, I'd have gone for them. But I didn't even catch on to what was happening. At that moment I saw one of them take out a camera and the other one skewers Kolka with his bayonet. ... He was posing for a photo, the dirty bastard! I stayed under the basket. And that night I ran for it."
She listened to him without hearing, knowing in advance that his story would contain all the horror that surrounded them, that they encountered at every step. She was silent, remembering the day their van had entered a village recaptured from the Germans. They had begun to tend the wounded. And from somewhere or other a shriveled, half-dead old woman had appeared like a ghost and wordlessly tugged at her sleeve. Tanya had followed her. The old woman had led her into a barn; there on the rotten straw lay two young girls — both of them killed by a bullet through the head. And it was there, in the dim light, that the peasant woman found her voice. They had been killed by their own countrymen, the Russian polizei, who had shot them in the head and violated the still warm bodies as they writhed in their death throes. ...
They remained for some moments without speaking, then took the road back. He lit a cigarette and gave a little laugh, as if he were recalling something funny.
"When they left the yard they passed close by the haystack. I watched them. They stopped and began sticking their bayonets into it. They thought someone was hiding there.
Twenty or thirty years later, when May 9 came round, Tatyana would often be asked this question: "Tatyana Kuzminichna, how did you come to meet your Hero?" On that particular day the whole varnishing workshop — ten young girls, three older women workers, including herself and the foreman, a bony man in a blue overall caked with varnish — holds a little celebration. They crowd into an office piled high with old papers, out-of-date wall newspapers, pennants celebrating the "Heroes of Socialist Emulation," and hastily begin to eat and drink, proposing toasts in honor of the Victory.
The office door leads out onto the rear courtyard of the furniture factory. They keep it open. After the noxious acetone fumes it is absolute heaven. They can feel the sunny May breeze, still almost unscented, light and airy. In the distance a car can be seen, raising a cloud of dust, as if it were summer. The women produce modest provisions from their bags. With a knowing wink, the foreman removes from a small battered cupboard a filched bottle of alcohol, labeled "Acetone." They all become animated, lace the alcohol with jam, add in a drop of water, and drink: "To the Victory!"
"Tatyana Kuzminichna, how did you meet your Hero?"
And for the tenth time she embarks on the story of the little mirror and the hospital in the school that springtime long ago. They already know how it goes but they listen and are amazed and touched, as if they were hearing it for the first time. Tatyana does not want to go on remembering the village burned from both ends or the old, silent peasant woman leading her toward the barn. ...
"That year, my friends, it was one of those springs. ... One evening we walked to the end of the village. We stopped. All the apple trees were in bloom, it was so lovely it took your breath away. So what do apple trees care about war? They still blossom. And my Hero rolled himself a cigarette and smoked it. Then he screwed up his eyes like this and said
It seems to her now that they really did have these meetings and long, long evenings together. ... As the years have gone by she has come to believe it. And yet there was only that one evening in the icy spring, the black carcass of the burned-out roof And a hungry cat sidling warily along beside the fence, staring at them with an air of mystery, as animals and birds do at twilight when they seem to stir things up in people's minds.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Hero's Daughter"
Copyright © 2011 Editions Robert Laffont S. A. Paris.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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