I’d been saving this book for a dry spell, thinking it might be a special kind of book and I was right – it is. The Tolstoy Estate is set mostly in the middle of the Barbarossa Campaign, Hitler’s ill-fated attempt to beat the Russian winter and the huge volley of soldiers fighting to keep the Nazis out of Moscow. It’s the late autumn of 1941 when we catch up with Captain Paul Bauer, a surgeon assigned to a field hospital which sets up shop in Yasnaya Polyana, Leo Tolstoy’s old home. It’s a smart move – the Soviet army is never going to bomb a literary shrine.
Oozing disgust and obstruction at every turn is Katerina Dmitrievna, the curator at the estate, who is a fiercely loyal Soviet citizen. She never misses a chance to remind Paul and his equally loyal Nazi commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Metz, that they are doomed. The winter, fast approaching, will be the death of them – their uniforms just don’t cut the mustard. If you needed convincing, Tolstoy captured brilliantly the defeat of Napolean’s army in War and Peace. Paul, somewhat dazzled by Katerina, accepts from her a copy of the book in German from Tolstoy’s own library. He read it as a boy in the last war from which his own brother did not return.
“…it was a bit late, five months into Operation Barbarossa, to be fretting about safety, personally or otherwise… If the Greatest Warlord of All Time had had any regard for human life, he would not have provoked a contest whose savagery made France seem in retrospect like a war of flowers.”
While the story follows the events of the six weeks Metz and his surgical team spent at Yasnaya Polyana, and the struggle of the German army to take the city of Tula, this is much more than a war story. Through a wide array of the characters, all brilliantly different from each other, we watch how people thrown together in an extreme situation cope. How they rub off against each other and how the difficult conditions make their idiosyncrasies stand out. Weidemann, the second in command is devoted to his gramophone, Metz develops an obsession with Tolstoy’s ghost while Captain Molineux plays practical jokes, often very offensive ones but charms his way out of trouble.
In this respect, the book reminded me a little of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, with its varied characters and dry, fatalistic humour. Bauer consoles himself with War and Peace and thoughts of Katerina. Both are caught up in the middle of regimes that interfere with any attempt to determine their own futures.
…at night he took to lying in his bedroll and blankets, engrossing himself in War and Peace. As usual he found it consoling. Whatever the fate of individuals might be, Tolstoy seemed to say, the rhythms of life would remain the same. The young would be foolish, hopeful and wild, would fall in love and out of it, become sadder, maybe wise. Some would meet their deaths sooner than others, yet there would come a day when everyone engaged in the struggles of their age would without exception die, bequeathing the world they had made to those strangers, their children, who would struggle to change it again.
The Tolstoy Estate is a wonderful read and Conte has done plenty of research to supply the details that make the book so vivid, including the harrowing surgery that Bauer and the other medics perform in terrible circumstances. I might add that as an often squeamish sort of reader when it comes to gory details, I was not put off by any of this, and found it added a lot to the story and helps round out Bauer’s character. The story was engrossing and gripping as war stories tend to be, but also because you know that battling the Russian winter, the survival rate for these men is slim.
I loved this book so much so that once I’d finished it I’d have been happy to start it all over again. It is well deserving of its short-listing for the Walter Scott Prize last year – I usually manage to find a gem among this yearly line-up, and this one was stunning. Conte is an Australian author, his first book (The Zookeeper’s War) winning the 2008 Prime Minister’s Award. The new book is only his second, which attests to the time Conte has taken to create his best possible work. The Tolstoy Estate gets a five out of five from me.