This short but powerful novel begins with Ivan Tsyareshka escaping from a Nazi concentration camp in the Austrian Alps and embarking on a desperate flight to reach safety in Trieste. He is joined by another prisoner, an Italian woman, Giulia, whom he is at first reluctant to take along, fearing she will hold him back. But Ivan is an upright and compassionate man and cannot bring himself to abandon her.
What follows is a tense and gripping tale of two people fighting against the odds to escape the Germans who are close behind them. As the two face inhospitable terrain, cold, and hunger, and in spite of the language barrier, feelings begin to develop between them as Giulia gradually wins Ivan over. Although essentially a nail-biting story, flashbacks to earlier times round out the characters and give context to their predicament. Giulia comes from a bourgeois background, which makes Ivan suspicious of her at first, although she considers herself a Communist, whilst Ivan, although loyal to his country, is aware of the faultlines in Soviet society. This added complexity helps to draw the reader in, and I found the book both immersive and compelling.
Bykau writes vividly, with not a word wasted. The descriptions of the landscape sing out, while the suspense and dramatic tension are expertly maintained right to the end. It’s a sad and haunting tale, reflecting a harsh and brutal era. The author (1924-2003) is well-known in his native Belarus, but we have had to wait until now for an English translation of this excellent novel. His work often features WW2, which he knew from first-hand experience, adding to the authenticity of the story. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and recommend it wholeheartedly. There is a 1965 Soviet film version to be enjoyed too.