Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak – A Review

Pasternak’s own story surrounding the writing of this novel, his winning the Nobel after the manuscript was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in Italy, and the fallout that ensued leading to his inglorious death a couple of years later, mirrors the fictitious life of Dr. Zhivago, and is more engaging than the novel.

This is a hard novel to follow, for although Pasternak was a celebrated poet and translator, he seems to have been quite an amateur novelist. Or else this book was written in snatches over a long period with no continuity checks, or pages were lost in translation, or the translators tried too hard to render the original Russian in English and failed. The result is a jumble of characters and viewpoints that stray even to minor characters who disappear shortly thereafter, and naming conventions that defy comprehension: Lara is known alternatively as Lara, Larochka, Larissa Fyodorovna, Raissa Komarova, Antipova and Strelnikova; and when you transpose that on the myriad others with variations of their first name, name and patronymic, last name, nick name, pseudonym and so on, it makes for quite a maze. Descriptions of the landscape during war and peace and of the seasons are well rendered from the author’s poetic stance, but the plot line is often contrived and dialogue amounts to stilted speeches that go on for paragraphs, often by the same speaker. The much vaunted romance between Zhivago and Lara, which was brought out so evocatively in the movie and in its theme song, is limited to a few brief pages, again more concerned with each other’s political stance than with their emotional one. There is more feeling expressed in their loss at parting than in their being together.

The span of the story begins from the dispersal of Zhivago, his family and his privileged upper middle class associates from Moscow with the onset of WWI, follows their travels to the Urals and into Siberia during the time of the Russian Revolution and civil war that ensued between 1917-22, tracks the good doctor’s return to Moscow at the culmination of that turbulent period, and concludes with the end of his impoverished life in that city eight years later. There is also an extended epilogue during WWII, when two of his colleagues try to reconstruct the Zhivago diaspora. During this span, characters intersect with each other under different circumstances in random manner; lives are changed and loves are lost by the most chance of incidents. In one such incident, Zhivago, who is out on a surreptitious visit to his mistress Lara, is kidnapped by Red soldiers to serve as a doctor at the Siberian front and he never sees his official family again. Contrivance or real life?

The strength of this novel-yes, despite its shortcomings there is great strength-lies in the fact that it was written by a writer living and witnessing the period of the Russian revolution and civil war, without taint of the propaganda that symbolized the Soviet era. Pasternak is frank in portraying the White Russians and the Bolsheviks as equally guilty of patronage, corruption and cruelty. Zhivago’s (and Pasternak’s) own political stance is revealed when he says, “I used to be in a very revolutionary mood, but now I think we will gain nothing by violence. People must be drawn to the good by the good.” The other powerful force in this book is its symbolism: Lara is the embodiment of Mother Russia, corrupted at an early age by her mother’s lover Komarowsky of the ruling class, and then left bereft of her idealistic and revolutionary husband Antipov, and her beloved man of science and art, Dr. Zhivago. Lara laments that she is left with a reinvented Komarowsky, “a monster of mediocrity.”

The historical notes help marry the fictional events with the real life background. I wished there had been a glossary of names as well. And Zhivago’s (Pasternak’s) poetry at the end reveals much of the doctor’s character and his spiritual development in this crucible of devastation that was the early years of the Soviet empire, much more than what comes out in the novel itself.