The Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge

sergeWhen browsing the shelves for a book to bring with me on a trip, I picked up Victor Serge’s Unforgiving Years.  I’d never heard of the author but the disturbing figure of the burning man on the cover piqued my interest.  Unforgiving Years is not an easy read but it is well worth the trouble.  It is an amazing account of survival, war, and political intrigue with a distinct dystopian tang reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 and hallucinatory imagery that remind one of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.  Much of the story is drawn from Serge’s life experiences so to understand the book you first must know a little about the author.

Victor Serge was the pen name of Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, an ethnic Russian born in Brussels in 1890 to peripatetic, intellectuals who were constantly “in search of cheap lodgings and good libraries”. As a young man in France he was imprisoned for 5 years, the first of many incarcerations, and charged with terrorist activities in association with the incorrigible Bonnot Gang. Upon his release, still thirsty for revolution, he went to Russia and joined the Bolsheviks. His facility for languages gained him a coveted position as an agent and journalist for the Communist International. As Stalin gained control of the Party, Serge’s friendships with Leon Trotsky and other influential members of the Party that had fallen from favor, led to his expulsion from the Party and imprisonment.  Famous writers and intellectuals such as Romain Rolland and Andre Gide launched a campaign for Serge’s release and to avoid worldwide bad press, Stalin granted him liberty.  Serge then moved to Paris but when France was invaded by the Germans he fled to Mexico; where he died, a broken man with empty pockets, in 1947 of a heart attack in the back of a taxi cab.

The Unforgiving Years, written in 1945, consists of four parts, each with its own location, rhythm and atmosphere.  The first part, A Secret Agent, details the main character’s, known as D, desperate attempt to leave the Party and escape the paranoia and purges under the “Chief”.  There are thrilling, page-turning scenes of cat and mouse espionage as D and his lover Nadine attempt to shake the agents following them and make plans to flee Europe.  Part two, The Flame Beneath the Snow, takes place during the thick of the siege in Leningrad from the perspective of Daria, a former lover and colleague of D who has returned from exile in Kazakhstan to aid the Red Army. Rather than a battle scene, this section poignantly illustrates the cruelties of war: death, detachment, starvation, and madness.  Part three, Brigitte, Lighting, Lilacs, is set in Berlin under Allied assault with Daria behind the front line working as an agent.  The scenes in this section mirror Serge’s own experiences as an agent and journalist in post World War I Germany. The last part, Journey’s End, find the characters united in a lonely Mexican village.  D and Nadine, nearly broken with fear that Stalin’s henchmen will find them, and Daria exhausted and seeking sanctuary.  While I won’t spoil the conclusion for you, I will say that it is reminiscent of Leon Trotsky’s end (Serge’s long time colleague) and a terrifying reminder of the long arm of Soviet power.

For history buffs, I highly recommend the Unforgiving Years in combination with study of Serge’s life.  Largely unknown in the literary world, he knew all the famous personalities that the Russian Revolution inspired including Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin Maxim Gorky, and lived a harrowing life on the run. Despite these hardships he was able to produce the stunning piece of art that is Unforgiving Years and an amazing corpus of novels, poetry, non-fiction, memoirs and essays.  Anyone interested in the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s regime will value this unique perspective.  A quotation from the Introduction of Unforgiving Years states: “Serge is arguably as important a novelist in the political genre as Malraux, Orwell, Silone, Koestler, and Solzhenitsyn”.  I couldn’t agree more.


The New York Review of Books has been actively translating Serge’s work – find them at your local library. When I can’t think of what to read next I always start with their list!


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