The realist novel is ill-equipped to take on Stalin. A form that likes to pick the idling loner from the bustling landscape could only misrepresent the Soviet style of persecution and extermination. Vasily Grossman's response to this problem was characteristically inventive and tactful. Everything Flows, set in the years immediately following Stalin's death, written between 1955 and 1963, is digressional and diffuse, and cares little for the reader's conventional demands: a straight narrative backbone, thematically obedient characters, and so on. Then again, a reader's conventional demands are apt to be ignored when it comes to the portrayal of atrocity.
Introducing this new translation, Robert Chandler claims that Grossman would have disliked postmodernism, and he is surely right. Grossman needed a system of thinking that recognised absolutes and treasured historical fact; he nonetheless slips a self-reference into Everything Flows: "The literature that called itself 'realist' was as convention-ridden as the bucolic romances of the 18th century." Elsewhere, the very stuff of literature is described in terms of its limits: "a story is only words - and this was a matter of life and death, of torment, of people dying from starvation".
Grossman wanted to make sense of Stalin's Russia, and this included making sense of those who collaborated with the state - who worked to have their friends and neighbours charged with "parasitism", "cosmopolitanism", "Jewish bourgeois nationalism", "servility to the west". Grossman stages a mock-trial, with a "PROSECUTOR" putting the questions to "INFORMERS". "Let us think," he advises, "before we pronounce judgment." After explaining - without explaining away - the circumstances that led a man to inform, he exclaims: "Nevertheless - what a bastard!" But once his moral fury subsides a little, he concludes that an atmosphere of bestiality is liable to make beasts of men. Russian history is the culprit, though this is not to excuse Russian individuals.
There aren't quite villains in Grossman's account; nor are there heroes. The novel claims to tell, but keeps on not telling, the story of Ivan Grigoryevich, who is returning to civilian life after 30 years in a camp. We start on the Khabarovsk Express on the way to Moscow with a shaggy-haired young man in pyjamas. He is sharing a compartment with three other travellers, among them a "thin old man . . . resting his head on his brown fists". At the end of the chapter, our attention is turned to this figure, still unidentified, as he sighs at the thought that life has carried on in his absence. The novel's title refers to the tragic fact of time's continuity for those whose lives are stalled by persecution.
We then lose sight of this tattered figure and are invited to consider instead a scientist, Nikolay Andreyevich, later identified as the thin old man's cousin. Nikolay is consumed with guilt, his whole life having passed by "in obeisance, in a great act of submission, in fear of hunger, torture and forced labour in Siberia". He feels his soul eaten by falsity and hypocrisy. He despises the Russian state for confessing its crimes and revealing his complicity with mass extermination; he resents Ivan for being a victim, for being relieved of the difficulties of Soviet citizenship.
But the figure with whom we are chiefly invited to engage in this wrenching, hectoring book is neither Nikolay nor Ivan, nor Nikolay's wife, Maria Pavlovna, nor Ivan's ailing one-time lover Anna Sergeyevna, though all suffer dreadfully. It is Grossman himself, as he picks his way through the facts. "Throughout its entire history," he writes, "the Russian revolutionary moment included within it the most contradictory qualities." His response is bafflement. Of Stalin's orchestration of the Terror-Famine of 1932-33, in which more than three million Ukrainians were starved to death, Grossman writes: "'No', I say to myself, 'how could he?' But then I say to myself, 'It happened, it happened.' And then, immediately: 'No, it couldn't have!'" He notes that Lenin loved Beethoven's Appassionata and Tolstoy's War and Peace, yet the regime he created went about reducing the status of Aleksey Tolstoy and Dmitri Shostakovich.
When Grossman isn't baffled by contradictions, he is bitterly amused by ironies. The chaos of reality has no place in a dictatorship: "Stalin died without receiving personal instructions from Comrade Stalin himself." The Jews are to be deported - "just as the Kalmyks, the Crimean Tartars, the Bulgarians, the Greeks, the Balkars, the Chechens and the Volga Germans had already been deported" - but it is for their own good, to prevent them being lynched. "Like everything else in the Soviet Union," we are told at one point, "this upsurge of spontaneous fury had been conceived and planned well in advance." This is a place where "senseless absurdity - the murder of millions of loyal and innocent people - masqueraded as cast-iron logic".
If the novel has a venial flaw, it is that while deriving much of its power from statement and undramatised history lesson, it has pretensions to being a conventional novel. A 40-page investigation into the characters of Lenin, who destroyed the things he loved, and Stalin, identified as a mixture of lordly Asiatic, nihilist revolutionary and police boss, is capped with the sentence: "Ivan Grigoryevich felt and understood all of this - sometimes clearly, sometimes vaguely."
Everything Flows is a sliver. In order to match its size to the size of its task, the novel calls repeatedly on facts, lists and shorthand. This splendid new edition is bulked out with helpful apparatus - including a necessarily partial history of Russian since Ivan the Terrible, and notes explaining Grossman's historical, literary and philosophical allusions. The book provides an entry into this period of Russian cruelty; Robert Conquest's 1986 account of the Terror-Famine, The Harvest of Sorrow, is the next step. And it offers a warm-up for those of us previously wary of embarking on Grossman's other translated novel, Life and Fate - a rewriting, more or less to scale, of War and Peace, and the basis for Martin Amis's description of Grossman as "the Tolstoy of the USSR".
Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer