Steven Conte hit the headlines in 2008 when his novel, The Zookeeper’s War won the inaugural Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, which, by the way, was won last year by Gail Jones.
That debut novel was set in Berlin during World War II and this one, The Tolstoy Estate, is also set during that war; this time in the winter of 1941 when a German Medical Unit is deployed to the Russian front where it sets up a field hospital in a vast country estate, Yasnaya Polyana, just south of Moscow, that is, in fact, the country home, and burial place of Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, better known to us by his German appellation, Leo Tolstoy. The novel’s protagonist, Dr. Paul Bauer, is a Tolstoy fan and one of the senior surgeons of the unit. The estate is lorded over by the head custodian, and Russian firebrand, Katerina Dmitrievna Trubetzkaya. She is a formidable character, a writer herself, and a masterful creation. With her sharp tongue, hardened Russian loyalties, and fierce dedication to the great novelist she becomes a major thorn in the side of the German officers; as if they haven’t enough to deal with: the constant stream of fighting men with debilitating, challenging, and horrific wounds, their isolation, lice, and, most of all, the brain-numbing and life-threatening cold (-43°C). It defeated Napoleon and it would defeat Hitler, as Katerina Dmitrievna is continually telling them.
Conte immerses the reader in the life of the hospital, the officers and staff, their foibles and idiosyncrasies as well as their work at the operating tables. His description of a thirty six hour non-stop operating shift, where life and death tussle with each other like naughty children at play and that seemingly will never end is one of the most vivid pieces of writing I have read in a very long time.
As relationships develop, split, and reassemble it is the one between Paul Bauer and Katerina Dmitrievna that gradually pulls our focus. They have a shared love of Tolstoy and talk often about him and his work, but of course not often enough, especially for Bauer. The stability of the unit is severely challenged by the interactions between the German medical team and the Russian staff, which further complicates Bauer’s growing affection for the prickly Katerina Dmitrievna.
And then at chapter twelve, just over half way through the novel, Conte pulls a swifty. Suddenly we are twenty six years into the future, in 1967, and Katerina Dmitrievna is in Helsinki writing to Paul Bauer in Nuremberg. And so begins another narrative stream, an epistolary one, that, for the rest of the novel, runs in parallel with the harsh winter’s tale at Yasnaya Polyana in 1941.
Yes, we know that they both survive the war and we think we know what then may have happened, or even what might, but Conte is not such a formuleic writer for it was just five pages from the end that I let escape a loud and unwanted, ‘Oh no!’ as I raced to read what had happened. (No spoilers here)
I loved this book and I hope we don’t have to wait 12 years for the next Conte work.
Here is an extended interview with Steven Conte about the writing of The Tolstoy Estate from Avid Reader Bookshop channel.
You can find out more about Steven Conte and his books here.
The Tolstoy Estate can be purchased in various formats here.