Red sky at noon, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

I saw this and I picked it up on the instant: Years ago I read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “biography” of Jerusalem, and more recently, his non-fiction work on Stalin, “The Court of the Red Tsar”. A most readable and engaging writer, and Russia is a subject of abiding interest to me.

This book is the second of a trilogy, but it stands up well as a novel on its own. I found it a deeply human story, celebrating the worth of individuals, very much in the style of Alan Furst’s novels about pre-World War II Europe. And yet, the story encompasses one of the titanic struggles of all history, that between Stalin and Hitler on the great steppes of western Russia.

Great opening lines matter. William Gibson opens his novel Neuromancer with “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Simon Sebag Montefiore opens here: “The red earth was already baking and the sun was just rising when they mounted their horses and rode across the grasslands towards a horizon that was on fire”…how could you not be hooked by that opening line?

He does does not shrink from the full horror of war on the Eastern Front. Yet, he manages to draw into his characters, qualities of humanity and gentleness that, while perhaps testing one’s suspension of disbelief, provide an important emotional and individual counterpoint to that titanic collective struggle.

Here we read of a political officer or “politruk”, an unpleasant fellow like all his kind, giving his life (though perhaps inadvertently) to save the life of a Jewish comrade. We read of the dictator Stalin, murderer of tens of millions of innocents, working himself to exhaustion to save Mother Russia from destruction at the hands of the Germans. Here we read of a man’s live saved several times over, because of his relationship with his horse.

This is the only book I’ve ever read other than the pretty much non-serious war novels of Sven Hassel, that mentions the dreadful German war criminal Oskar Dirlewanger. He has a small and unimportant part to play in this work. But of him we will write no more: over some of the deepest evils committed on the Eastern Front, a veil ought be drawn.

This then, is the story of a brief love affair between an Italian woman and a Russian man. It is the tale of a huge and complex intelligence operation almost ruined by a well-meaning man in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is the story of a man who somehow survived the GULAG. It is a story about prison and about war, and love and about combat, and primarily, about Russia, about the Cossacks and the Don steppes.

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