WWI with the eye of a young Austrian doctor

“The Winter Soldier” is American writer Daniel Mason’s third novel and first book printed in Russia

Many books about war are available for the Russian reader. But most translated literature and books written by Russian authors are dedicated to WWII and the Great Patriotic War. WWI in literature went almost unnoticed for us because the Civil War was taking place in Russia at that moment.

The Winter Soldier is a historical novel whose main character is young Austrian doctor Lucius Krzelewski. He is the sixth and undesired child in a wealthy Polish family in Vienna. His mother is a cynic aristocrat, his father is an owner of a mining company. In public life, they surround themselves with imperial paraphernalia. Once, Lucius’s mother ordered a portrait from Gustav Klimt. It was initially supposed that she would be pictured with her son. But then the woman decided to have him painted and draw a golden adornment instead of the child.

For Lucius’s parents, the war that broke out is a way of significantly increasing their wealth. But to avoid talks and reproaches in society, they need a family victim. It is Lucius who is sent to the Eastern front at 22 to work at a war hospital.

The young man doesn’t have experience as surgeon. He has spent the last three years of studies in the library where he examined “he ravages of typhus, scarlatina, lupus, pest.” In his career, he has had four patients and an old man whom he removed earwax. Despite the absolute absence of experience, Lucius’s parents consider his leave as a holiday. They understand their son will unlikely come back but they are happy because Lucius has a chance of showing off on the battlefield.

In these family scenes, Mason skilfully demonstrates the drama mixed with patriotic absurd optimism. “Jumps” in the narration prop up this effect when wild working conditions at a war hospital interchange with the main character’s peaceful and well-off past.

The place of service when Lucius arrives isn’t far from Debrecen in North Hungary. It is a forgotten place where the medical student will see he couldn’t even imagine. At the station where he has to change the train for a horse, Lucius doesn’t understand at the beginning that a hussar was standing in front of him. And here he saw a person dressed in a thick old coat and worn out fur hat with bald patches.

The story unfolding for the reader further is so exciting that it is hard to stop reading. When Lucius approaches an old church where the war hospital is located, a sister of charity aka Sister Margareta opens the door. In fact she is the only sister. Margareta is the strongest character in the book and Mason’s best work. She incredibly personifies harsh practicality, a steel grip and endless mercy with the skill of having insightful talks. The work in this place taught her to get rid of anxious thoughts and gangrenous extremities without hesitation. The faith in God, ancient spirits and science harmonically combine in her.

But no matter how experienced and merciful Margareta is, the conditions in the hospital resemble living underground than hospital. Patients arrive in lorries, on horses and even carts where living people’s bodies are mixed with dead ones. They are injured by the latest and most ancient weapons. Amputation here is almost general treatment for all patients, while fleas are a common trouble. Mason scrupulously describes this all immersing the reader into the atmosphere of the place.

There are other patients among physically injured soldiers too, their bodies weren’t wounded, neither could they be named healthy. A nameless Hungarian soldier was the first to draw Lucius’s attention with such symptoms. He doesn’t speak and isolated himself from everybody. A pile of strange drawings he had was the only way of contacting him. These drafts open windows into the broken human mind and illustrate long-term consequences of the trauma.

Nobody was aware of the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) yet. It would be described in detail and examined only two decades later. But precisely the PTSD caused by the involvement in war actions became the main theme of Mason’s book. The writes refers to it at the beginning of the novel when Lucius examines a scull X-ray.

“Nothing to see…just cloudy shades of grey and lighter grey, tricks of shadow that played upon the eye and yielded nothing. And yet! Thought was there, he told himself, astounded. In that grey haze lay Fear and Love and Memory, the countenances of loved ones, the smell of the wet cellulose, even the vision of the technician the moment the film was shot.”

Daniel Mason wrote The Winter Soldier novel at 14. In 2004, the writer was interested in the development of psychoanalysis and relations between Sigmund Freud and one of his patients. This was going to be a historical novel with subconsciousness given the pride of place. But delving into the theme and examining documents, Mason discovered many interesting facts about doctors who were sent to war hospitals. He was astonished by the working conditions and records with the description of odd symptoms in patients without visible bodily wounds. This is how the idea of The Winter Soldier came about.

By the way, Daniel Mason himself is a psychiatrist and docent at Stanford University. He has three novels and several stories, but only The Winter Soldier is related to medicine.

Publisher: Phantom Press
Translation: Alexandra Borisenko, Viktor Sonkin
Pages: 416
Year: 2022

Yekaterina Petrova. Illustrations: Nikita Konovaltsev

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Yekaterina Petrova is the founder of Makulatura book club and author of Poppy Seed Muffins Telegram channel.