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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Unforgiving Years

Victor Serge

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To purchase Unforgiving Years

Title: Unforgiving Years
Author: Victor Serge
Genre: Novel
Written: (1971) (Eng. 2008)
Length: 357 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Unforgiving Years - US
Unforgiving Years - UK
Unforgiving Years - Canada
Les années sans pardon - Canada
Les années sans pardon - France
  • French title: Les années sans pardon
  • Written in 1946, but first published in 1971
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Richard Greeman

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Our Assessment:

A- : flawed but powerful

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Harper's . 12/2007 John Leonard
The NY Sun . 28/5/2008 Eric Ormsby
San Francisco Chronicle . 23/3/2008 Dan Zigmond

  From the Reviews:
  • "(I)t stands as his testament. Here Serge explores, in unflinching detail, all the murderous delusions of the revolutionary mentality. The revolution may devour its own children, as is often said, but in Serge's novel, it devours them first from inside." - Eric Ormsby, The New York Sun

  • "The plot is thinner than it sounds, and the character's digressive meditations on politics and history can be long and comically portentous. (...) Yet Serge reminds us here that, in the middle of the 20th century, people asked these things. This essential book preserves a time when Stalin's crimes were routinely denied and communism remained a vital intellectual presence." - Dan Zigmond, San Francisco Chronicle

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Unforgiving Years is a loosely connected four-part novel, centered around characters devoted to the revolutionary (Moscow-led Communist) cause -- and broken and disillusioned by it, in the time before and through World War II.
       In the first part a character named D breaks with the movement, abandoning it completely -- though:

     His inner break with the Organization dated back to when the Crime had been revealed.
       The Moscow show-trials show the cause to be a lost one, and the formerly dedicated D can now longer go along with it. Serge describes his trying to cut loose his ties, using all the tricks he's learnt to escape the 'Organization'. The section is called 'The Secret Agent', and it has the feel of an espionage thriller, D's paranoia about every number-combination or code-word he overhears making for an authentic feel of complete uncertainty. D is a pro, and fairly calm, but he's so tied in to this secret service that even if danger does not lurk at nearly every corner it really seems to.
       Meanwhile, the break itself also takes a mental toll, since it means abandoning his life's objective:
Only negation remains. No, no, no, and no. No to power. I, a nonentity, refuse my consent. I preserve my reason while you are losing yours.
       As he gets ready to run he meets the still idealistic young artist, Alain, who see's D's abandoning the cause as a betrayal. There is also Daria, the one character who appears in all four sections, and whose dedication lasts somewhat longer, though in the end she too turns to Mexico (where D has fled) and a final escape.
       D finds: "The situation must be terribly grim for me to have arrived at that conclusion" (i.e. that 'No') after twenty years of faithful service, and grim it is. But while there is a great deal of reflecting on what the world and the movement has come to, the power of the book ultimately builds with the real-life descriptions -- less of D and his lover, Nadine's, flight than the privation and hardship in the Soviet Union and in Germany during the war. Daria's experiences, behind enemy lines (where she is a successful infiltrator), and on the home-front, are brutal -- yet here ideology again almost retreats behind everyday reality. The Nazi evil leave the Soviet one nearly unquestionable -- yet the questions remain.
       During the war Daria's attitude differs from D's; she's not yet ready to abandon all hope -- yet:
"Me," Daria said, "I'm an optimist about human nature, but over the very long term." The young man was applying his army knife to a can of American corned beef. "Would a thousand years do for you, dear Comrade ?"
     "Perhaps, but I can't guarantee it."
       (So many of these exchanges are double-edged, cynicism inevitable as they stumble over the dead and see the effects of severe malnourishment.)
       Stalin and Hitler are deluded mediocrities -- but, in power, monstrosities. D served Stalin, but wasn't completely taken in by the man:
I met him twenty years ago. There was no genius about him, there was no more to him than to any of us -- something less, in fact. This deficiency served him well, as scruples and high-flown ideas can only interfere with the practice of tyranny, while a sense of the ridiculous might have prevented him from deifying himself.
       Meanwhile, even as the war is lost, German soldiers still believe in Hitler's grandiose master-plan, as in their minds "defeats become transmuted into brilliant feints" -- so one who even in retreat:
He's counting on secret weapons, scientific warfare. He talks about the stratosphere without knowing what it is -- as though it were some sort of magical immensity set aside for the most devastating weapons.
       Part of Unforgiving Years also contrasts art and revolution, and wonders about the place of the one within the other. Typically, D observes (or worries):
I'm turning into a character out of a novel for intellectuals ...
       And he's not that far wrong -- Serge was wise to disrupt the narrative, and structure his novel in these four disjointed parts; the first is the most readily approachable, and conventionally-exciting, but the true force of the novel only builds in the sections after. It remains a roughly-hewn novel, describing rough times and great psychological and physical turmoil; it is effective, but not always easy reading.
       Unforgiving Years is a curious piece of fiction, the work of a (once-)true believer who struggles some with his bitterness but sticks close enough to the realities he knew to create a powerful work of fiction. As one writer in the novel notes:
Documentary authenticity has nothing to do with literary creation.
       Serge's novel is realist fiction, but does not need to lay claim to being any sort of accurate record. These particular events may not have happened as they are described here, but enough others, similar to these, did, and that's sufficient -- and make for a work that is more universal.

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Unforgiving Years: Reviews: Victor Serge:
  • Writings at Marxists' Internet Archive
Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       Victor Serge lived 1890 to 1947.

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© 2008-2021 the complete review

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