We Never Make Mistakes is a collection of two novellas by one of Russia’s greatest ever novelists. The first story, An Incident at Krechetovka Station, concerns an officious and somewhat lonely Red Army Lieutenant called Vasili Vasilitch Kotov who is overseeing the day to day running of a busy railway station during WWII.
The author paints a chaotic picture of a junction through which pass a great many ‘echelons’ of troops and supplies every single day, all of which have to be either refuelled, resupplied, fed or redirected, or all of the above. Weighing on his mind is the fact that a similar such rail junction was recently attacked by German aircraft.
Into this maelstrom wanders a straggler, a former actor/now soldier, who is trying to catch up with his unit. Kotov offers him a cigarette and engages him in conversation, only to suspect that this seemingly pleasant young man may in fact be a spy. The Lieutenant finds himself torn between his duty to alert the NKVD (the secret police), and the devastating consequences this could have on the poor man’s life if he is in fact innocent.
Story number two, Matryona’s House, centres on a man who has served time in both the army and prison, and now wishes to return to normal life in the heart of Russia. It’s worth noting that just because he spent time in prison doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s a criminal. A great many people, millions upon millions, passed through the prison system during the reign of Stalin. Victims of his rampant paranoia.
He takes a job as a teacher in a village and lodges with an old spinster, the Matryona of the title. But all spinsters have their own story, of course, and soon our hero grows to understand the pains she has endured and the burdens she has carried.
Meanwhile, her greedy relatives circle like vultures and it’s not long before tragedy strikes.
Solzhenitsyn, author of the formidable gulag novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, is a master of filtering huge events through the eyes of lowly participants. In story number one the chaos, uncertainty, threat and paranoia of a global conflict is filtered through a single incident at a busy railway junction, where an unassuming Lieutenant is forced to make a choice that could have terrible repercussions. But it is story number two that I found the most affecting. Here, the author paints a vivid picture of the life of this lonely and betrayed old woman, and the friendship she finds with her new lodger is genuinely heart warming.
The title of the book comes from a line delivered by an NKVD agent in the first story and is symbolic of the hubris reached by any country when it believes that it is infallible, that it is incapable of error. There is, of course, a lesson to be learned here for the present day.
I read this book in just two sittings as it is both compelling and beautifully written, and, dammit, I even love the cover!