Dead Cows and Mangled Translations

Fyodor Abramov was awarded the State Prize of the U.S.S.R. in 1975 for his trilogy of life on a rural commune, The Pryaslins, of which Two Winters and Three Summers is the second volume. "Begin at the beginning, go on to the end, then stop," was the King's advice to Alice, but Harcourt Brace Jovanovich prefers to start in the middle, perhaps because Deming Brown wrote in his Soviet Russian Literature Since Stalin: "If Two Winters and Three Summers had been written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, it would have immediately been translated in the West and proclaimed a masterpiece." Not all readers may agree.

The narrative centers on life on a rural commune in the years after World War II, when it begins to sink in that the good life Stalin promised is still not on the horizon. The protagonist, Mikhail, tries to keep his family and commune together but sees both dissolving under the pressures of grinding poverty and an equally grinding central bureaucracy. At the end of the book, one of the few good workers is hauled away forever because he is a Christian; Mikhail's beloved sister, Liza, decides to marry a loutish jerk with good Party connections; and the family's cow dies. I know. You are smiling. But all three are tragedies of the first magnitude, although Liza's marriage does at least get them a new cow. The narrative is slow-paced and depressing, but...

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