CSN is 50: Review of “And Quiet Flows the Don” by Graham Harrington (Winner) Nov19


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CSN is 50: Review of “And Quiet Flows the Don” by Graham Harrington (Winner)

Mikhail Sholokhov’s masterpiece And Quiet flows the Don is a novel that has stood the test of time.The book was written in the late 1920s/ early 1930s era Soviet Union and is a classic example of a Socialist Realism artwork. It has transcended contemporary cultural and geo-political obstacles to be loved by East and West alike. It has won both the Stalin Prize (1941) and the Nobel Prize (1965), the opposing forces of Capitalism and Communism both sharing in its omniprescent beauty.

The novel tells the tale of the Cossack people living on the Don River through the ever-fluctuating fortunes of the Melekhov family who live in the village of Tatarsk in the early 20th Century. The protagonist, Gregor “Grishka” Melekhov, is a young cossack filled with dreams of glory, wealth and beautiful women. His boring life as a farm hand turns into an exciting adventure when he begins an affair with the wife of a local cossack man, the sultry Aksinia. Life does not go well for the lovers – their affair is discovered and, in an attempt to restore the honour of both families, Gregor is forced into a loveless marriage with a local girl, Natalia Korshunov, while Aksinia is beaten for her insubordination.

Eventually, what we now call World War One breaks out and Gregor is summoned to the front but he deserts leaving his new wife and family behind and, taking advantage of her husband being at war, elopes with his former lover Aksinia. He settles with her in the home of a friendly nobleman and they begin a life together, away from war and have a child. The war catches up with them however and Gregor is enlisted with a Cossack regiment. This is where the novel’s narrative and pacing really acclelerate. A sizeable segment of the novel is dedicated to capturing the savagery of the war. Sholokhov describes it thus: “Men had clashed on the field of death and, embraced by mortal terror, had fought, struck, inflicted blows on one another, wounded one another’s horse; then they had turned and fled, frightened by a shot which had killed one of their number. They had ridden away mortally mutilated. And it was called an heroic exploit.”

The soldiers’ disaffection grows with dissent brewing among the rank and file. The shadowy “Bolsheviki” are being discussed by the troops in glowing terms for their anti-war, anti-Tsar stance. This sets the stage for the two most important and emotionally palpable sections of the novel. These sections centre on the Russian Revolution and resulting Civil War where characters you had spent half the novel rooting for become the objects of detestation for the reader and the characters previously viewed as villianous become heroic icons.

And Quiet Flows the Don is one of my favourite novels. It has a beautiful albeit tragic element of irony and transformation in it. Whether it’s Gregor saving his lover’s husband who just tried to kill him while ostensibly on the same side in the field of battle or the relatively minor character Bunchuk’s previous utilitarian approach to war and death and the ironic way it steals his only love towards the end of the novel or many more scenarios, there is a large amount of transformation in the novel: young to old; boy to man; peasant to soldier; soldier to revolutionary. Ultimately the emphasis is on how conflict of all types changes men and how, especially in civil wars, destroys them from within.

As a man once said, “All wars are civil wars because all men are brothers.”

At over 600 pages, this is not a light read, nor should it be treated as such. It deserves to be read with the respect with which it was written. You will feel the pages fly by and by the time you’ve reached the novel’s tragic although curiously beautiful ending you’ll only want to read more. Alternatively, you could just watch the (fairly bad) movie adaptations.

To sum up the novel, it’s about cossacks. At times you’ll despise them and at other times love them but you weep for them.