Thursday, April 9, 2009

Europe Central by William T Vollmann

Wow. This book was not what I was expecting, but I am glad I picked it up. (I honestly don't know what it was I was expecting, but anyway.) Europe Central won the 2005 National Book Award for fiction, and it is easy to see why. The writing is magnificent - I felt swept away, caught up in the stories. The book itself is difficult to describe. Each chapter is a parable of sorts, and the chapters are paired in a way that illuminates the story. Basically the book is about World War II, focusing on Germany and Russia. There is no main character, except perhaps Europe Central. Each story is told from a sort of omniscient narrator point of view, with the voice sometimes changing in the middle of the story. Like I said, it's hard to describe.
Even though it took me longer to read than I would have thought, I am really glad I invested the time in it. I know almost nothing about WWII, so a lot of what is described I had never known, but I only felt lost during one story (Airlift Idylls - that one completely lost me for a bit). Some of the chapters focus on real people, telling their stories as the author envisions it, people such as Field-Marshal Friedrich Paulus, Kurt Gerstein, Shostakovich, and then sometimes the story is told by someone who seems to be an individual but is really not (those chapters reminded me of And Then We Came to the End, if you've read that). Basically this book would be enjoyed by anyone who can invest the time, who is interested in that time period, or who loves it when an author can use the language so beautifully (even when describing terrible things). Vollmann obviously did a ton of research for this book, and it makes me curious to see what his other books are like.
I picked this book up because it was a National Book Award winner, which I am reading for my 999 Challenge (my list is here). I also read it for the Well-Seasoned Reader Challenge which ended in March, so I obviously didn't get it done quite in time for that challenge, but oh well. The National Book Award Winners have been interesting so far, so I'm excited to continue my list! This book is also my Read Your Name Challenge "E" book.

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