Blockade Diary

Lidiya Ginzburg

translated from the Russian by Alan Myers
Harvill Press 1995
A book review by Danny Yee © 2008
Though based on first-hand experience during the siege of Leningrad, Blockade Diary is not actually a diary, or even a documentary novel. It has no characters as such — just a generic N and K — and only scattered fragments of dialogue, description, and narration of events. What it offers is an analytical probing of the psychology of life under siege.

Ginzburg explores the effects of cold, hunger, shelling, and the death from starvation of family members. She explains the psychology of queueing and rationing and the behaviour of intellectuals finding new roles. Above all was the constant obsession with food.

"The siege cooking mania took hold of the most unlikely people. Once I happened to observe a boy of 16 (the age of greatest contempt for womens' affairs) frowning and biting his lip as he baked some oatcakes. At once his mother came fussing around: 'Let me... you don't know how...' But without a word he pushed her roughly away from the stove.
The more meagre the raw material involved, the closer it approached mania. All the maniacal activity stemmed from a single premise: just eating was too simple, left too little trace. Siege cookery resembled art — it conferred tangibility on things. Above all, every product had to cease being itself. People made porridge out of bread and bread out of porridge; they made cakes out of greens, and cutlets out of herrings. Elementary materials were transformed into dishes. These efforts at cookery were motivated by the thought that it was tastier or more filling that way. But it wasn't that, it was the pleasure of fiddling about, the enriching of the lingering, protracted process..."

"Blockade Diary" itself is only eighty pages long, and is followed in this volume by some additional short pieces. "Notes Under Siege" turns to political and existential philosophy, using the siege to explore the relationship between the individual and the community or state, and the anxieties of existence. "Paralysis" is a first person account of the effects of malnutrition and starvation. And "Excerpts From a Siege Day" goes through a day in the life of N.

"N did not immediately understand why every day at work, after about one o'clock, he was possessed by a strange sense of malaise. Then he realised what it was — urgency. This urgency was one of the guises of starvation or starvation trauma. Urgency as a mask for hunger — the ceaseless rush from one stage of eating to the next, accompanied by the fear of missing something. This urgency was particularly associated with lunch. This was given out by an indifferent government agency. That is, it had objective criteria for everything — this was certainly true and the criteria were certainly objective. But what if it wasn't enough? Several times during the winter there hadn't been enough porridge."

It's only a brief volume, but Blockade Diary is a powerful study of human life under adversity, facing starvation in a regulated community. It is evocative of Leningrad and its historical experience, but it is universal in its reach.

April 2008

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%T Blockade Diary
%A Ginzburg, Lidiya
%M Russian
%F Myers, Alan
%I Harvill Press
%D 1995
%O paperback
%G ISBN 186046033X
%P 114pp