Orphan of History

Unforgiving Years

by Victor Serge, translated from the French and with an introduction by Richard Greeman
New York Review Books, 341 pp., $15.95 (paper)
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Victor Serge, Mexico, 1944

Singular and solitary, the novelist Victor Serge (1890–1947) appears as an orphan of history, a chance survivor improbably clinging to the coffin of the Bolshevik Revolution. The main characters of Unforgiving Years, Serge’s final novel, written in Mexico, the place of his own final exile, are his fictional brothers—disillusioned Soviet agents surviving the hell of wartime Europe only to be thrown, like he, into some hitherto unimagined Atlantic void.

Unforgiving Years begins with D, a dedicated revolutionary with a cyanide capsule adhered to his scalp who now believes himself hunted by Stalin’s agents. Looking for a way out of 1938 Paris, he contemplates his “final break with all the reasons for living—ideas, cause, motherland, unity in danger, invisible battle for the future, vision of a forward-marching world!” After D escapes to Mexico, his spiritual comrade Daria follows him on a westbound freighter, seven years and considerable suffering later. She’s “traveling on her last passport, her last money; outside every law, very possibly pursued, free, free!”—and naturally, for a Serge character in such circumstances, contemplating her extinction.

Creatures of thought as well as action, D and Daria are descendants of the talkative nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia. Even (or perhaps especially) as the world falls apart, they are absorbed with the workings of their minds. “I’m turning into a character out of a novel for intellectuals,” D jokes to himself. During the siege of Leningrad, Daria hastens over blackened snow amid exploding shells, wondering if she is “still thinking within the material truth of history.” Stalin appears only as a poster in a government office; his name is never mentioned—nor are those of Lenin and Trotsky—but D and Daria spend considerable time pondering past associations, turning their service to the Party and Revolution over and over in their thoughts. During his last night on earth, D mentally revisits the Central Asian scene of a youthful exploit in the Russian civil war and poses the essential question: “How did we—insurgent, united, uplifted, and victorious—bring about the opposite of what we wanted to do?”

These characters may not speak for Serge but theirs are the voices that haunted him. D, the same age as Serge, muses that an entire historical epoch was required to shape him. Born in Brussels to revolutionary parents, brought up in one exile and dying in another, Serge passed his life in a succession of prisons and left-wing political parties. A participant in three European revolutions, he became familiar with millennial expectation and catastrophic loss. Only after he ceased to be a professional revolutionary did he become a novelist. His first book, Men in Prison, was set in France, written in German (and Germany), finished in Moscow, then mailed piecemeal back to France for publication. His best-known novel, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, was begun in Paris, then continued while he was on the run through France, crossed the Atlantic, and detained in the Dominican …

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