The Tragedies of a Century, Compressed and Displaced

The Year Is ’42, by Nella Bielski (translated by John Berger and Lisa Appignanesi). Pantheon, 224 pages, $18.95.

I took a gypsy cab from Brooklyn to J.F.K. the other day. As the ’94 Lincoln spilled fumes into its interior, the driver waved his arms and kept turning to tell me stories. New York blazed past the windows while the driver’s voice spun us both to his homeland of Jordan. Those vivid New York details outside my cab did not illustrate the driver’s story. They illustrated his displacement.

This kind of displacement has become normal to us. It’s the subject of Nella Bielski’s The Year Is ’42, a confused but ultimately moving novel that reads at first like the genealogies of a Tolstoy saga compacted into a Proustian salon and delivered in a stutter of sentences. Ms. Bielski now lives in Paris and writes in French, but not till she brings her novel to her homeland of Ukraine does its true story finally appear.

The novel opens in the bath of Karl Mazinger, a civilized German officer in occupied Paris. Aged 48, Karl’s Iron Cross was earned in the trenches of the earlier war. War in The Year Is ’42 is curiously distant. Protagonists work as translators rather than go into battle. No one is afflicted by siege or air strikes.

Characters speak in an undifferentiated staccato style that is the overall tone of the book. Tenses shift between present, past and future without any apparent structural logic. As a novel it seems a mess, because it follows a filmic rather than a novelistic technique. Fix a camera on the shoulder of Karl, provide a voice-over of his thoughts, and you have an angle that takes you through the opening sections. It’s tempting to presume that characters enter a novel in order to play a part. The parts in The Year Is ’42 are mostly walk-ons, so don’t bother growing attached to them. Karl makes love to a young Madeleine, bids hello to a flower-seller, is served a drink by a bisexual barman, and leaves them all behind.

A missing Frenchman was important in Karl’s quixotic earlier life, and so we learn about the time that “He and Karl were watching a sunset together in Tibet. Strange, he said, the rose color is a special pink, the pink of Toulouse. The Frenchman’s passion for ships and planes had, by this time, extended to water fountains and magnolias.”

I read this paragraph with a weary sigh. How the hell did we get to Tibet? Who gives a damn about an elusive Frenchman’s shifting passions? Spare me this welter of unrelated detail and random association. Get me out of here!

Ms. Bielski obliges. As we move to Karl’s home in Saxony, we trip into a le Carré–style espionage thriller for a moment-a glancing moment. Though Karl’s friend and neighbor Hans Bielenberg is a spy, we soon abandon pursuit of his activities. Hans acts as a counter for Karl, who disapproves of the war yet could never betray his country.

Good Germans are rare in non-German tales of the war. When Wladyslaw Szpilman first published The Pianist, his account of surviving the Holocaust in Warsaw, the nationality of the man who saved him was switched to Austrian: The notion of a good German was too much for readers to stomach. Karl is not quite that good German. He’s a German gentleman from an earlier epoch, an officer of the traditional Wehrmacht in a world where the S.S. and the Gestapo are ascendant.

We come to see Karl more clearly as we spend time in his rural Saxony home, and it’s a relief to be free of the profusion of characters that suffocated the Parisian pages. However, we can’t stay here; Ms. Bielski needs us back in her Ukraine. Karl travels on a plane headed for Hitler’s Ukrainian summer residence. Among the crew on board is an engineer on a mission to burn the thousands of corpses from the massacre at Baba Yar.

Now Ms. Bielski’s true story begins. We meet Katia, a girl who becomes a doctor and runs a clinic on the outskirts of Kiev. Her Jewish friends, who reject her warning that a census count will become a massacre, all die in Baba Yar. However Katia’s home is on the outskirts of Kiev, where the occupying German soldiers seldom appear. War once more surrounds the story but keeps its distance.

Some secret internal power guides Katia. She learned spiritual healing while she was a medical student, and she’s afflicted by visions that show the love, horror and loss that will come her way.

Karl too comes her way. His body is now ravaged with a skin disease, though his face and hands remain clear. The disease is a physical manifestation of psychological damage. As Katia lays healing hands on his skin, the lives of these two disparate characters are allowed to meld.

This novel touches me with a sense of lives that flicker on while containing the tragedies of a century. In 1975, I drank a cordial in the home of an old lady in a Dresden suburb. Framed photographs of her son stood on the cabinets. He had been killed when he was my age, in a war against my country. The loss informed the rest of her life. She could only glance at me and wish me gone.

Katia’s father, a musician, survives on the edge of insanity: Any reference to his losses might tip him over. Katia is a stronger being. One final vision of tragedy becomes, for her, a “spasm of light.” In that moment, Karl’s life enters the stream of her own history. It takes a while for The Year Is ’42 to reach the story that is home, but then the atrocious whirl of the 20th century snapped millions in Europe away from their stories. For both Nella Bielski and the reader, this is a brave return.

Martin Goodman is the author of I Was Carlos Castaneda: The Afterlife Dialogues (Three Rivers Press).