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Culture & Religion

NEW YORK / An Unusual Encounter: Life and Fate (3)

Life and Fate, an epic novel by Vasilij Grossman, describes the nature of man in the face of any form of power, in Communist Russia as in any place and at any time. A central point in the exhibitions that the New York Encounter, the two-day cultural festival held in Times Square one week ago, offered to its visitors.  


On the afternoon of my final day at the New York Encounter, I visited the two larger exhibits, one on the novel, Life and Fate, by Vasilij Grossman (1905-1964), and the other mounted by Euresis, entitled, “The Earth, A Human Habitat: The Exceptional Features of Our Small Planet.”

In “Life and Fate,” the organizers write, “The main theme of this novel is the absolute, indomitable nature of man in the face of any form of power-- a nature witnessed to by the great questions about the meaning of existence, well describing the heart and reason of man, even in the most dramatic circumstances of human life.” In a series of panels, the exhibit provides historical background and documents the difficulties in bringing the book to print; the novel was banned in Russia and the manuscript, all notebooks, and even Grossman’s typewriter ribbons, were burned. Ten years after the author’s death, in 1974, his friends were able to smuggle microfilm photos of the manuscript pages to the west where the book was first published in 1980. It was not published in Russia until 1988, and some think it is the greatest Russian novel of the twentieth century.

As I approached the exhibit, “The Earth, A Human Habitat,” there was a large group following one of the guides. I met two guides, Giorgio Ambrosio, a particle physicist with the Fermilab, a proton-antiproton collider in Batavia, Illinois and Massimo Robberto, who works on the Hubble space telescope at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. These two specialists in their respective fields described panels in the exhibit with evident enthusiasm, despite the fact that the science content of most of the panels was drawn from various disciplines, including biology, chemistry, geology, and physics.

The original exhibit was first presented at the Meeting in Rimini, but to create this English language traveling exhibit, the scientists collaborating on the translation had to edit it down to about half the size. The discussions became a moment of collaboration and collegiality that deepened friendships among the scientists. What made it worth the work to put together such a great exhibit? Ambrosio said, “The exhibit starts from wonder. We asked one question, 'How does the earth support human life?' From this point, scientific inquiry can remain open, and after all the research, we discover many more questions! It is something that is even more wonderful!”