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Esquire
Wednesday, December 8th, 2004


 

The Year Is '42

by Nella Bielski

The Beauty of War

A review by Anna Godbersen

"The war went on, and everyday Karl Bazinger took a bath." So begins Nella Bielski's brief, lovely World War II novel The Year Is '42, which is filled with these sorts of incongruities. Of course, they are only incongruities in hindsight. For Karl Bazinger, a Wehrmacht officer, it is just April of 1942, and he is stationed in occupied Paris, a city he loves, and why not take a luxurious, ruminative bath? He has friends, dinner parties to attend, a young lover named Madeleine with "interminable legs," and little reason to worry about his family in Saxony. But this urbane lifestyle cannot be maintained, especially when Karl goes off about Yeats in English when he's drunk, and disdains the sadism with which a certain SS officer executes prisoners. Karl is sent home on a brief leave, and then transferred to the Eastern Front, where he becomes more fully aware of Nazi atrocities. Perhaps out of guilt, he develops a full body "skin eruption" with "scabs and pustules everywhere," which leads him to a fateful meeting with Katia, a resistance doctor. Bielski tells Karl's story with an almost sketch-like quality, conjuring vivid details of his life, or fragments of scenes, and then quickly moving him along. His point of view is often eclipsed by those of the many other characters, and while these many points of view add richness to Bielski's wartime scene, they can make The Year Is '42 an exasperating read. Still, the shift from a nostalgia-heavy view of Paris to a Kiev characterized by violence and paranoia is heart wrenching. Bielski illuminates the preciously ordinary moments of average people under the extreme duress of war, and she does it with an elegiac kind of beauty.


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