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Book Review- Doctor Zhivago- By Boris Pasternak

Greatest works of art always stand at the intersection of the key social events. What makes them stand apart from an ordinary reportage, unmindful of human angle, or a personal account, a blindly ignorant of social context of huge consequences- it the careful and crafty way of story-telling which maintains a delicate balance between the characters and the world they live in. This takes huge amount of effort on the part of the writer, to hold the story on that extreme edge of the abyss. It is almost like holding a bull gone berserk, by the horns, and keeping the beast on the track. Stories are like that, and once written to a point, they begin demanding an autonomy. Stories struggle to break free, they want to hold the pen of the writer and try to push their ways.  

As the scope and expanse of the story increases this unruly behavior reaches to a stage where it threatens to destroy a good novel. It is the sign of an exceptional masterful writer when he keeps the control of the stories, without even appearing to be doing so. Virginia Woolf did that in Orlando, George Elliot in Middlemarch. Russian greats have always been the master of this art. Most Russian novels are long, winding and run a constant risk of losing the track. Most great Russian novels never do. Woolf says that the soul is the common and most critical character in all Russian novels, Dostoevsky's, included. Since Russian novelists see the characters as souls, the characterization is complex and thrives on the muddled shades between the white and the black. Virginia Woolf writes in The Common Reader

"A new panorama of the human mind is revealed. The old divisions melt into each other. Men are at the same time villains and saints; their acts are at once beautiful and despicable. There is none of that precise division between good and bad that we are used to."

There is an abundance of soul in this great classic- Doctor Zhivago. It tells the story of an intellectually away soul, a Doctor, whose life progresses across the interacting forces between passion and morality, between hope and ambition. He is a doctor, he deals with human body. He practices a science which deals with the body of a human being, which has no concept of human soul. What an odd choice of character for a Russian novel, if one were to believe Ms. Virginia Woolf. But no, she is not wrong. This Doctor has the drawer of his table full with pages of written poems. Amid war, amid the struggle between a woman he loves and must not, and the woman he lives with, amid being a Doctor, a soldier and a poet- he becomes a soul. As Woolf says- the old divisions melt into each other. And once that happens we know, we have in our hands one of the greatest Russian Novels of all time. This is eastern, oriental treatment. The story moves with soul, not with events. That is the beauty of it and that brings it much closer to me as an Indian reader. 

Another strong feature of Russian writing is observation. Although, observation is also amply covered by some western writers like Conrad or Fitzgerald, but here the observation is less scientific and more philosophical, soul-centric. Character-development happens through vivid descriptions. Here Pasternak, explains the character of Tsar- 

"Accompanied by Nikolai Nikolaevich, the sovereign inspected the lined-up grenadiers. With every syllable of his quiet greeting he raised up bursts and splashes of thunderously rolling hurrahs, like water dancing in swaying buckets. ...
....

The Tsar was pitiable on that grey and warm mountain morning, and it was eerie to think that such timorous reserve and shyness could be the essence of an oppressor, that this weakness could punish and pardon, bind and loose."

Such a glorious prose, such vivid descriptions!!

The vision mingles and melts into thoughts and spirit and becomes one with well, what Ms. Woolf calls soul. One gets into it and comes out of it. Read this: 

"The moonlit night was astounding, like mercy or gift of clairvoyance, and suddenly into the silence of this bright, scintillating fairy tale, the measured clipped sounds of someone's voice, familiar, as if just heard, began to fall."

This story of Dr. Zhivago, a doctor and poet, moves along his life as Russia passes through wars and eventually the revolution. His loss of parents, life as an orphan, his marriage, more out of friendship, less out of love. His meeting up with Lara and a passionate affair of two intellectual minds lost in a world which is transforming into an un-intellectual space of engineering certainties with no room for intellectual possibilities. A great book, to be read and re-read. 


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