Review: Away From the Dead by David Bergen

My Quick Take: A startlingly sad yet beautiful story about the ordinary people that make up our history, against a backdrop of violence and war.


This article was originally published in The British Columbia Review on October 12, 2023.

Goose Lane Editions (2023)

“She asked him to read to her. And so he did. And every evening after that, he picked up his book and read… The story was both simple and difficult. She said that normally people didn’t talk like this. Or even think like this. Did they? He said that Gogol was having fun with characters who meant nothing, who were insignificant. She said that wasn’t completely true, because now people were reading about these ‘insignificant’ characters, they were suddenly important.”
As I opened David Bergen’s latest novel Away From the Dead, I expected a work of historical fiction. That’s what I got, but in a different way than anticipated. It’s a novel where the big facts of history are a backdrop for the small portraits of ordinary folk under the constant threat of violence and upheaval. Rather than focusing on historical details, Bergen shows individuals who lived and loved during turbulent eras. They captivate us as they try to take refuge in the mundanity of daily routines.

Set in Ukraine, the book journeys from the Russian Revolution of 1905 to the First World War and the 1917-1923 Russian Revolution. To tell the story Port Edward, BC-born Winnipegger Bergen (Here the Dark) follows three characters. A teacher, bookseller, and aficionado of Russian literature, Julius Lehn perceives through a literary lens; he craves simplicity, but is conscripted to fight in the Great War. Inna and her brother Sablin were born peasants, but after their mother dies they are adopted by the affluent Martens family, and afforded privilege. Wealth doesn’t protect them from the whims of their rich benefactors or the vagaries of war.

Outside Lehn’s bookstore, the 1905 Russian Revolution creates chaos. And because of his Jewish heritage, Lehn’s a target. In the midst of this upheaval, he narrows his vision: “Revenge was in the air, and the smell was foul. Lehn had no interest in pursuing those who had pursued him. Let me read, he thought. Let me sell my books. Leave me alone.”

Experience filtered through literature creates distance from loss, grief and the knowledge of his own, eventual death. Even as Russia enters the First World War, “For Lehn, the war was outside noise, events that were happening elsewhere, though he would certainly be affected.” His attempt to distance himself from emotional ties is shattered when he meets Inna at a wedding on the Martens’ estate years after his first wife’s death. He is pulled again towards love and vitality.

At just over 200 pages and with flawless pacing, Bergen manages to create a world with deeply written characters whose personal tragedies often eclipse the larger happenings of history.

For instance, after Inna meets Lehn, she has to make difficult choices. Pregnant by a Martens son and banished to a small town, she is comforted by her relationship with Lehn and her burgeoning interest in the books he reads aloud to her. She finds a role in tending the homestead and building a community with her neighbours. But she has to fight to keep her child when the Martens lay claim to her young daughter, wielding their power of privilege over her.

Inna’s loss matters more to her than 1918’s bloody slaughter of the Romanovs. When her daughter is taken:
“She went outside and around the corner of the house and pressed her forehead against the wall. Bit her hand. Walked over to Goerzen and went in the house and sat down. She did not look outside. She clapped her ears. After so much time, Goerzen touched her shoulder and said, ‘They are gone.’”
Author David Bergen (photo Luke Bergen)

Later, Bergen draws us into Sablin’s story. He’s a man of few words and simple needs, tethered to the land, tending to the crops and caring for the horses, and joined by Elizabeth, a young neighbour. Perhaps his story best illustrates the orientation towards everyday activities that protect against the chaos of war. The landowners around him leave or are killed; grand houses burn to the ground; food and livestock are plundered. And by whom? An endless parade of warring factions, all blurring together in the background, like a filmstrip on a loop, while Sablin endures:
“Elizabeth saw each successive band of men as no different from the previous. Sablin, however, knew them and their designations. These were Bolsheviks. These were anarchists, Makhno’s men. These were White Russians. These were Cossacks. These were green, these white, these red, these black.”

It’s dizzying, but Sablin is tied to the land and those he protects. Even when compelled to fight and kill, he finds a way to return to the comforting routine on the abandoned estate. It grounds him, and that is what he needs to survive:
“‘You are so serious, Sablin,’ [Elizabeth] said. ‘You will die from crying. What do you want?’
‘A horse. A stable. A small piece of land to plant tomatoes and vegetables. To be left alone. That is all.’
‘That is a lot.’”
When Lehn is conscripted to fight on the front lines of WW1, he constantly reinvents himself in an effort to travel home to his bookstore and his love. After witnessing the horror of the front lines, “Lehn left the field hospital and deserted before being sent back to the front. It wasn’t even a choice, and if you aren’t truly choosing, if something happens spontaneously, then how can it be called desertion, which is a singular act of cowardice. He wasn’t a coward. He had gone into battle and survived, and this was enough. It was simply chance.” He transforms into a truck driver and then a paramedic, bluffing his way through a landscape of death and destruction to find his way home, and to a semblance of peace.

That is what Away From the Dead is so very good at. With spare prose, Bergen points to the fragility of existence—the ever-present hum of violence and the unpredictable threat of death. While the author doesn’t look away from the horrors of war, his novel invites us to be fully alive in the moment, tethered by small things that are important nevertheless. This tension can evoke some uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, but connecting with the humanity of Lehn, Inna, and Sablin eases the tension a bit. They’re constantly facing crisis, but repeatedly orient themselves away from nullity–to the land, animals, and each other–to cope and to find meaning.

With that said, the violence of war is a rising tide, inexorable in its progression—that doesn’t show mercy and doesn’t discriminate. A never ending cycle of plunder and violence claims its victims, and in the end, living or dying sometimes comes down to no more than random, stupid chance.

Despite the hardships of war, Bergen leaves us with a sense of hope. These characters persist. In the end they are emblematic of all individuals who survive to build a future that is ultimately our own. In a letter to Inna from the front lines, Lehn writes:
“I have new boots. Not in great shape, but they are now mine, taken from the feet of a soldier who died just after arriving at the hospital. When I saw them, I took them off and exchanged them for the worn ones with holes that I was wearing… and boots being the essence of the material world, I see it as fate, and a sign of good luck, for now I picture myself walking home to you, to your blue eyes that I see in the sky as I walk, the clicking of my heels against stones and wood, sweet the fat earth, walking east and then south, pushing on, towards the living, you, you, you, and away from the dead.”