three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
17-July-Aug-2005
user_rating: 
0

A-EuropeCentralThe Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s love triangle, the Third Reich’s blitzkrieg across the Russian steppe, poet Anna Akhmatova’s struggle to write about the private life, and SS officer Kurt Gerstein’s decision to expose the truth about Zyklon B in the gas chambers—these stories and dozens of others involve real-life, 20th-century personages in the paired, interwoven parables of Europe Central. While Vollmann focuses on contrasting German and Russian experiences of totalitarianism, it’s his massive landscape of human suffering and creative endeavor rising from the ashes that remain in the consciousness long after the last page is turned.
Viking. 811 pages. $39.95. ISBN: 0670033928

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Vollmann’s language beautifully captures these warring conflicts, moving from lyricism to military strategy to hallucination to erotic longing as his characters navigate their way through a landscape of atrocities. … [I]f you’ve been following his extraordinary career, Europe Central may be his best novel yet." Steven Moore

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Throughout these tales (36 in all), Vollmann shifts narrative points of view, voice, protagonists—all while moving through the same doomed milieus: the gulags, the Spanish Revolution, Stalin’s show trials, the bloodbath of Stalingrad, the Nazi death camps. … Europe Central is easily Vollmann’s greatest work, and it deserves a central place in what must be our continuous imagining of the horrors we are all too capable of reliving."
Joel Turnipseed

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Slippery characters interest Vollmann; he likes to explore how and when they slipped. … He has done as much as anyone in recent memory to return moral seriousness to American fiction, and here’s hoping that this jarring, haunting, absurdly ambitious symphony of a book will inspire other writers to batter down mental barriers …"
Steve Kettmann

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"… a kind of kaleidoscopic portrait of life in Europe around the dawn of World War II, when totalitarianism was on the rise. … With this profound and fully realized new work of fiction, Vollmann asks us to put aside what we think we know of history and immerse ourselves in it once again." John Freeman

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"The narrators’ ideological rant in some interchapters … becomes repetitive and can be oppressive. … Part novel and part stories, virtuoso historical remembrance and focused study of violence, Europe Central orchestrates the best of Vollmann’s past impulses into one large-minded and bighearted Opus 15." Tom Leclair

San Diego Union-Tribune 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[O]ne of the undeniable problems overall with Europe Central lies in its unwieldy, gargantuan length and tendency to belabor. … Vollmann conveys it all with great insights as always, punctuating his incisive analysis with masterful prose … in a style and in a passion and commitment all his own." Gordon Hauptfleisch

Oregonian 2 of 5 Stars
"For Vollmann’s devoted fan base, Europe Central could well be seen as a work of considerable research and skill, if not the pinnacle of the writer’s career. For the uninitiated … Europe Central might seem less an opus of cutting-edge fiction than a … war novel written in a Darth Vader prose style with long passages that resemble the kind of writing found in a college history textbook." Richard Melo

Critical Summary

Most critics praised Vollmann’s twelfth novel, paying homage to his ambitious yet capable grasp of the pivotal political and moral issues of the 20th-century. They hail his dazzling prose, sure command of history, innovation, and copious research, and they proclaim that Europe Central is one of his best (if not the best) works. Reviewers cast an indulgent eye on Europe Central’s shortcomings, though almost all bemoan the ponderous length of the novel and Vollmann’s predilection for hammering his main points ad nauseam. The critics agree: What kept Europe Central from being a tour de force was an editor willing to excise the excess.

Also by the Author

Rising Up and Rising Down (2003): 4 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2004. In his 3,298-page "essay" on violence (later whittled down to one volume), Vollmann provided a panoramic history of instances when violence was justifiable—and when it was not.