Thursday, May 20, 2010

Theodore Odrach, Wave of Terror

Odrach, Theodore. Voshchad. Ukraine, 1972.
______. Wave of Terror, Translated by Erma Odrach. Chicago, IL: Academy Chicago Publishers, 2008.

Wave of Terror at Goodreads.
Wave of Terror at the IBList.

Rating:     7/10

Wave of Terror is an unusual mixture of comedy and Soviet horror, dealing with the opening months of the Soviet occupation of a rural area in Ukraine in 1939. We follow the Soviet usurpation primarily through the experiences of two disparate villagers, the school headmaster Ivan Kulik and the pretentious young Maria Valentynovna. In its episodic format we are introduced to many diverse characters and witness a wide array of scenarios, from the comic and absurdist to the horribly tragic. Some scenes are more effective and some simply more interesting than others, yet each episode is fairly short, preventing a potential lag or unevenness in the reading that episodic novels can fall victim to. The overall balance is strong and I was able to read the book at a consistent pace.

Odrach evidently wanted this book to be the first part of a trilogy, yet sadly passed away before he was able to complete it. The ending is abrupt and many situations are left open-ended, but this lack of closure enhances the work, especially considering that its aim is to solely examine the beginnings of occupation and its prompt affects on the rural populace. Odrach’s point is made and his vision of the early Soviet Ukraine remains quite vivid.

The singularly unique aspect of the novel is the combination of outright humour and devastating tragedy. Though there is some slapstick, particularly in the opening sequences, the humour succeeds best when used to illustrate the absurd notions of social reform by a regime that pretends to be a saviour, when it is evidently less benevolent to its people than its predecessor. Odrach emphasizes his point that salvation from the cruel Polish landowners is less than a blessing when the new controlling Soviet force has less to offer the people of Hlaby, and instead finds more from their meagre holdings to seize. It is a horrible tragedy, and though the tragic events are often bleak, the humour shines through making for an unusual read. As we become enmeshed in the lives of the victims of this new regime, the humour takes a back seat, overshadowed by the elements of persecution and paranoia that overtake the town and its inhabitants.

My favourite sequence in the novel is the election held to appoint a Deputy of the Village Soviet (Chapter 19). Two comical and glutinous Soviet officials stage an election as a ploy to keep a certain lascivious local within their insatiable grasps. The staged election becomes a farce as the townspeople cannot take the proceedings seriously, not caring for these formalities and expecting to gain nothing from this supposedly serious and important civil act. When the two officials nominate their intended, they ask that the townsfolk call out their nominations for the four party seats in order to make up a presidium, specifying that they should elect their most upstanding citizens. In a wonderful show of mockery and chaos, the four names are among the town’s social outcasts, who have not a clue as to what is going on around them. In this scene Odrach succeeds in portraying the extremes of political absurdity, and though I laughed aloud while reading it, I could not escape the intended seriousness behind the scene. Indeed, it is the humour and absurdity that heightens its serious elements.

Being a historical novel of Soviet occupation, there are some truly disturbing moments with less than comical characters, emphasized primarily though the sinister Sobakin. One can argue that most of the characters (if not all) are two-dimensional, and indeed they are, but the two opposing forces here are the Soviet motherland and the rural town of Hlaby. The many characters are used to illustrate the various degrees extremes that people go through in such conflict, the victims, rebels, submissives and those who manage to strive as best they can. Though we do pursue the experiences of two specific characters, the novel is not a character study nor the relating of a single unified set of experiences, but an overall view of a vast event. In that the novel succeeds, and I can only hope that we will see more of Mr. Odrach’s work in translation.

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