Sunday March 3, 2013
An unlikely hero
Review by MARTIN SPICE
Author: Sarah Quigley
Publisher: Head of Zeus, 300 pages
THERE are some events in history that are so large in scale, so awful in their human cost and so unimaginable in the extent of the suffering they cause, that they pose the novelist with formidable problems just by the enormity of their subject matter. The Siege of Leningrad, or St Petersburg as it may be better known, is such a case.
A city of some three million people, it was subject to one of the most brutal sieges of all time during World War II. The siege had one objective: to break the resistance of the people of Leningrad and to destroy the city forever.
According to an article on the siege in The Observer in 2001, “The Führer (Adolph Hitler) said publicly and in leaflets dropped on the city that in order to avoid obliteration, Leningrad must surrender. Secretly, however, he ordered his commander in the east, Field Marshal Wilhelm von Leeb, to refuse the city’s capitulation and obliterate its citizenry, whatever happened. In a directive headed ‘The Future of the City of St Petersburg’, the Nazi general Walter Warlimont wrote: ‘The Führer has decided to raze the city of St Petersburg from the face of the earth. After the defeat of Soviet Russia there will be not the slightest reason for the future existence of this large city.’”
The siege lasted 872 days at the cost of one and a half million lives, with a similar number evacuated, many of whom also died. By the time the siege ended, the remaining population had all but starved to death, surviving on minuscule rations of sawdust-impregnated bread and any birds or rats that remained. Temperatures were as low as -30°C. The failure of the Nazis to take Leningrad was a pivotal event of WWII’s European theatre.
Rather than tackle the full enormity of these events, although they are very convincingly ever-present in the background, Sarah Quigley opts for a more domestic and positive story. One of Leningrad’s most important inhabitants was the composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), already recognised as a major, if controversial, musical figure of the time. Regarded as far too important to be a casualty of the siege, he was eventually, and initially rather against his will, evacuated to Kuibyshev where he finished the final movements of his seventh symphony, now known as the “Leningrad”. It was ready for a public performance. There were, however, very few people left alive in Leningrad to play it.
Quigley’s choice of this moment is an inspired one. Her novel is not short of descriptions of the terrible conditions that people lived in or of the heartbreak involved in the breakup of families that evacuation often entailed. But The Conductor is the story of the musical genius of Shostakovich and the persistence, bravery and dogged determination of Karl Eliasberg, conductor of Leningrad’s then second-tier (and possibly second-rate) Radio Orchestra. Moments of heroism do not come much odder than Eliasberg and his musicians struggling to perform and broadcast the Leningrad symphony as a gesture of defiance against the besieging army and as a means of raising the spirits of the city’s remaining inhabitants.
For much of the novel, Eliasberg is the focus. He is not, initially, a particularly appealing character. “I was born without a heart,” he says at the book’s opening. It is the fate of a leader, a conductor, to have to stand apart from the people he leads, in this case musicians. But however much they may resent his insistence on punctuality, his criticism of parts played wrongly, his brutal denial of rations on disciplinary grounds, the musicians who make up his raggle-taggle orchestra slowly but surely pull together and rehearse for the public broadcast they have been ordered by the authorities to give.
In all the desolation that Leningrad had become, this shambolic musical event represented a towering symbol of resilience and defiance.
The performance of the Leningrad finally took place on Aug 9, 1942, and it was played, live, through loudspeakers directed at enemy lines. It was a gesture of hope and solidarity that rang through the deserted and destroyed remains of one of Russia’s finest cities.
Eliasberg is an unlikely hero but in that hour he becomes much more than the nit-pickingly austere leader of a band of starving and struggling musicians, and gains both new status and our complete respect. He will never match Shostakovich’s genius but his grit, determination and decency shine through the appalling times he is forced to endure. Genius is difficult to identify with because it is by its very nature extraordinary; Eliasberg, on the other hand, is an ordinary man who manages to achieve extraordinary things. He is, in his own flawed way, wholly inspiring.
Sarah Quigley’s fine achievement is to take one of history’s most appalling episodes and through it to fashion a moving and uplifting tale of the indomitability of the human spirit.