Ivan is the protagonist of Grossman’s novel Everything Flows, apparently modelled on his brother in law. This is an account of a man who spent three decades in a gulag and then one day found himself back in ‘normal’ life.
By telling the story of one man, Grossman tells the story of countless thousands who suffered a similar fate, and yet he is sensitive enough to mention that a story may need to be told and yet can also be too searingly sad to tell.
He may be touching on the dual nature of stories – their telling can lead to healing and catharsis (or at least preventing more such stories occurring through ignorance or negligence). On the other hand, depending on the context, the telling can poke at an open wound for which silence might be a better balm. Silence isn’t always suppression, it can simply allow time to do its work. Nevertheless, I also liked the comment on the gift of stories by the translator of this novel.
Ivan Grigoryevich imagined sitting in a dacha armchair, sipping wine and talking about people who had disappeared into eternal darkness. Many of their fates were piercingly sad; even the tenderest, quietest, kindest word about these people would have been like the touch of a rough, heavy hand on a heart that had been torn open. No, there were things that could not be spoken.
Source: Vasily Grossman, Everything Flows, trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler with Anna Aslanyan (London: Vintage Books, 2011), p. 38
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