Simon Sebag Montefiore offers his countless readers a storied name – he is part of a famous family that includes his great-great-uncle, philanthropist, social activist and industrialist Sir Moses Montefiore, and his older brother, acclaimed military historian Hugh Sebag Montefiore – as well as substantive, gripping, dazzling stories.
He is one of those rare authors who, with equal command, write acclaimed works of both fiction and non-fiction.
Montefiore is a historian whose key area of scholarship is Russian and Soviet history. He also recently wrote a generally well-received history of Jerusalem. His works of history have been translated into nearly 50 languages.
Red Sky at Noon is Montefiore’s third novel in his celebrated Moscow trilogy (though it’s the second according to the series’ chronology). Montefiore described the novel as being “about love, survival, courage, life and death at a time and place of astonishing horror, in what was perhaps the most atrocious moment in the human experience.”
Clearly, many people around the world choose to read his books. Red Sky at Noon is prescriptive of why they do so: this book, simply, is spellbinding.
The very first few pages create a mood that is edgy and tense, action that is dramatic and a scene that is stunning in its descriptive power. That edginess, drama and power permeate the entire novel. The reader is hard-pressed to put it down.
The story unfolds in the summer of 1942, taking place primarily in the vast prairie expanse of the Steppes of the south central Soviet Union. Soviet forces are trying to stop German forces from advancing upon Stalingrad. Like the Don and Volga rivers, both of which feature prominently in the novel, the action flows without relent.
One of the chief characters, a writer named Benya Golden, has been falsely accused by the Kremlin, farcically tried, unjustly convicted and heartlessly tossed into the penal maze known as the gulag. He emerges from the gulag by becoming a member of a cavalry unit of criminals, murderers and thugs (Shtrafniki) whose orders from Stalin himself are unambiguous and unpromising: “Not one step back… (The Shtrafniki) are to be placed in the most difficult sectors of the battle to give them the chance to redeem their sins against the motherland by the shedding of their own blood.”
Before the first charge by the Shtrafniki into enemy formations, the Kremlin commissar attached to the unit elaborates upon Stalin’s orders: “As convicts and cowards, you have no rights as soldiers. You will not even be informed of the name of your front, and there’ll be no maps for you. You will gratefully receive your mission and you will fulfil it. If I or the special unit notice the slightest hesitation, deviation, insubordination – a word, a look, yes, even a thought – you’ll get the eight grams (a bullet to the back of the head): instant execution!”
But as Montefiore sardonically adds, the soldiers are neither surprised nor motivated by the commissar’s unrestrained charge because “the things they had seen in the gulags… had accustomed them to the malignant buffoonery of Soviet bureaucrats.” Time and again, Montefiore makes the point that Soviet bureaucracy – from its very highest level to the lowest petty clerk in the chain of pitiless command and authority – was indeed far more malignant than it was buffoonish.
Montefiore shows us explicitly that depraved savagery was the hallmark of the fascist fatherland of Nazi Germany and the socialist motherland of the Soviet Union. Both were tyrannies, dictatorships and totalitarian machines that cared for nothing but the preservation of their own regimes, securing and perpetuating their own power and advancing their own bizarre, twisted, murderous ambitions. They clawed fiercely and barbarically at each other’s throats.
With clear nods to medieval and modern history, Montefiore sets the parameters of the battlefield enmities. “Out there in the cauldron of blood it was not just German vs. Russian, Nazi vs. Communist, but also Russian vs. Russian, Cossack vs. Cossack, Ukrainians against everyone and everyone against the Jews.”
But Red Sky at Noon has far more than “merely” historic aspirations. It has overarching literary and humanitarian aims as well. Montefiore uses his considerable abilities as a writer, through plot twists and elegant turns of phrase, to pointedly and elegantly deliver on his intentions.
For example, we are introduced to Fabiana, a nurse from Italy who finds herself in the war serving alongside Germans and Russian collaborators because of Mussolini’s alliance with the Germans. “She was just a nurse and it was not her job to judge Italy’s allies, and that, she thought, was the quiet crime of these times: if you made your conscience elastic enough, you could learn to tolerate anything and still find joy in the blossoming of flowers.”
Circumstance and the force of the heart’s mysterious magnet bring Fabiana and Benya together. While trying to evade the terror that surrounds them, he asks her: “Don’t you think sometimes you can live for years and they can count for nothing, then there are special times when every second is so rich, so priceless, so deep that we live with such intensity that every minute counts fivefold, tenfold, a thousandfold. And we call that time ‘Love.’ Sometimes one night is a lifetime…. The space between them seemed to be crisscrossed with golden threads – like the dew on spiderwebs at dawn. How often does this happen in a lifetime?”
Red Sky at Noon is a work of fiction that is constructed upon actual historical events. In the author’s note at the conclusion of the work, Montefiore tells us that in the book “many of the things Stalin says are based on his own words.… The bizarre but fearsome idiosyncrasies of Stalin’s system of terror and favour are accurate too.”
This book is a riveting adventure story that embraces the heart as well as an absorbing political-historical seminar that challenges the mind.