"A True Story? C'mon..."
This is the story of the battle for Stalingrad, and a duel between two snipers. There is much known about this battle, such as some very disturbing statistics about casualty rates and the conditions under which both sides fought. But that's not enough for Mr. Robbins...
Instead of (just) the personal drama between the participants, he felt he needed to insert a main character that just didn't exist. This character lived "as authentic a life in Stalingrad as could be devised for him", but all that did was blur fact and fiction and make me think the interesting bits were all made up - hey, if he can justify inserting a non-existant character into those situations, why can't he just make up those situations in the first place?
It's not as if the setting needed any exaggeration for effect anyway - the battle for Stalingrad cost an estimated 1,109,000 deaths (yes, over a million people). Stalingrad was home to over 500,000 people, but after the battle on 1,500 were still alive there. Frightening figures.
The thing I really didn't like about this book, the bit that really annoyed me, was right at the start before the story even began. I don't want to give things away to anyone who is planning on reading it, but the back cover says the author interviewed one of the dueling snipers (and gives his name) so it's a Bit Of A Fucking Clue as to who wins. All the attempts at building drama and tension are hurt by giving the ending away before anyone opens the book.
Those two things spoiled what could otherwise have been a fine book. I don't think any book could really do justice to the conditions suffered by everyone in the battle, but the book does OK in describing the conditions and showing how people coped or didn't cope.
Here's an interesting snippet. The scene is set in the ground floor of a building, with two groups of enemies separated by walls and locked doors. There are no signs of reinforcements, and both groups are too entrenched for the other to do a frontal assault, so both groups try to dig a tunnel under the other groups position, to plant explosives and blow them up from underneath. Both groups sing loudly to cover the noise of the digging:
"Through the night, Nikki's company did most of the digging. They gauged the race in the tunnels by who flung the most verses across the corridor. We must be catching up, Nikki thought. We've even added a harmonica. The Reds don't have a harmonica."
It's that kind of unreality that can demonstrate the mindset of the people involved. It's just a shame that none of the "people" involved in this scene existed and had to be made up.