Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A riveting novel that chronicles some of the worst horrors of the Ukrainian Civil War. 

Mikhail Bulgakov's 1925 novel, The White Guard, first appeared in serial form in the literary journal Rossiya. Unhappily for Bulgakov, the journal was closed down before the serial was completed. The novel finally appeared in full in 1966. Some good luck did come out of the partial serialisation, as the author was asked to turn his novel into a play, which became the highly successful The Days of the Turbins.

The year is 1918. With both their parents now dead, the adult Turbin children must try to survive through the horrors of civil war. Three main groups, the Bolsheviks, the Socialists and the Germans, fight for control of the city of Kiev. Allegiances shift in complicated chess board moves, making survival almost a game of Russian roulette.

Alexei is the eldest Turbin. He is a doctor. Then there is Elena, who has married. And the youngest is Nikolka. The novel for the main part describes their family life at home, including neighbours and visitors. These parts of the story give the reader a great feel for the cultural life of the city, the attitudes of both its intellectuals and workers. Bulgakov also gives many great topographical descriptions of the city, its glorious buildings, streets and public places. The main action of the novel centres around Alexei and Nikolka on the run in the streets of Kiev, hunted down as enemies. These parts of the book offer heart-in-your-mouth descriptions of what it was like to have your life in the balance, when the political situation was so topsy-turvy, when everyone seems to be a potential enemy, and when the hatred between political parties was absolutely diabolical.

Bulgakov himself worked as a doctor during the Ukrainian Civil War and experienced much death and destruction up close. He had to play the delicate political game of survival. The White Guard is riven with first hand experience, making it like a mini War and Peace. Many of the scenes are not easily forgettable. The sections that deal with Alexei recovering the dead body of an officer from the morgue for his mother are amazing for their horror and ghoulishness. It's the sort of stuff you can't make up. Finally, there are the many striking portraits. Bulgakov excels as a psychologist, evoking the mad, fevered states of mind that civil war – a world turned upside down – induces.

The White Guard is perhaps not a very easy read, but once you have finished it, and more of the novel's complexities come together, you do feel compelled to go back and read it again. I should say for anyone interested in the history of those times, it is indispensable.

The White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov. Published by Vintage. ISBN: 9780099490661  RRP: $14.99

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