Book extract: Love, war and literature at heart of Conte’s novel
Day 25: From the critically acclaimed and award-winning author, Steven Conte, The Tolstoy Estate is a poignant, bittersweet love story – and, most movingly, a novel that explores the notion that literature can still be a potent force for good in our world. The extract published below is part of our month of extracts from Australian authors.
Extract from The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte:
‘We are here,’ Metz said, pointing to a building identified as the Tolstoy House. Bauer looked around the empty drawing room. Leo Tolstoy walked here, he realised, ate and drank and no doubt read. He recalled a photograph he’d seen of the writer in old age, heavily bearded, his eyes piercing, dressed in a peasant’s tunic, baggy trousers and high leather boots – the aristocrat turned sage, straying as if by accident into the twentieth century.
Metz said, ‘This is not only an ideal site for a field hospital but also, when the front moves on, a base hospital. There’s no saying whether Tula will have suitable structures.’
‘Or any structures at all,’ Molineux said, cocking an ear to the sound of the guns, audible even indoors.
‘Quite,’ Metz said. ‘Accordingly, I’ve already ordered Sergeant Major Ritter to post guards on all the major buildings.’
‘But, sir, surely that’s unnecessary,’ Bauer said.
‘Because the Soviets must have spared this place deliberately.’
‘It’s a national shrine,’ Molineux added.
‘Ritter’s men could perform other tasks,’ Bauer said.
Losses from combat, accident and illness, while not as severe as those of a frontline unit, had placed the battalion under pressure, forcing some men into roles for which they were ill-suited, notably their dentist taking over as an anaesthetist.
Meanwhile Ritter, a born fighter, had little patience for his duties as quartermaster.
‘It’s not for me to divine the enemy’s motives,’ Metz said.
‘They’ve blundered and I won’t let them rectify their error by having partisans fire the buildings. Now, may I go on?’
Bauer nodded, feeling intensely weary. Quite possibly Metz was right. In war, who could really distinguish accident from intent?
C Company would remain in Chern, Metz announced, and from there evacuate casualties to Oryol. Meanwhile B Company had gone ahead to establish a dressing station in the village of Malevka, just south of Tula. Divisional headquarters had reported fierce fighting there – the sound of heavy guns was proof enough of that – and tomorrow casualties were sure to arrive. Accordingly, operating theatres would be set up overnight in the building Metz had selected for a hospital. Here he pointed on the map to a long narrow structure about three hundred metres away, the Volkonsky House. Officers would be housed in the Tolstoy House; enlisted men in the third of the estate’s main buildings, which the legend identified as the Kusminsky Wing. Metz spoke briskly and cogently, apparently unaffected by the strains of the past two days.
Bauer couldn’t say the same for himself, and as Metz moved on to logistical matters his attention strayed. On the walls there were pale rectangular shadows where paintings must have recently hung, though to judge by the piano and the furniture in the vestibule the evacuation of the house’s contents was incomplete. Tolstoy’s house, he reminded himself.
Weidemann asked if there was a usable airfield nearby, and Metz was beginning his reply when a door at the far end of the room swung open and a woman entered, startling all of them, particularly Metz, who drew his P38 and levelled it at her. The intruder looked unperturbed. She was neither young nor old.
A small mouth, large eyes. A triangular face. She was wearing spectacles, her auburn hair pulled back in a bun.
Bauer stepped forward. The woman’s spectacles gave her a scholarly air, though behind them her large eyes were focused and shrewd. Haltingly, he introduced himself in Russian and asked the woman her name, speaking slowly to avoid errors, aware of his fatigue.
‘Ty perevodchik?’ she asked. ‘You’re the interpreter?’
Metz demanded to know what she’d said.
‘I am a surgeon,’ Bauer explained to her.
The woman said something too quick for him to catch, saw his puzzled expression and repeated, ‘You’re a butcher …’
He stared at her, too tired to think of a riposte.
‘Of Russian,’ she said.
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘But there is only me. We are doctors,’ he went on, ‘a field medical unit.’
The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte is published by Harper Collins and available in all good bookshops and online for $32.99 (RRP).