Bantam, 1999, 474 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58135-X
For all the horror and the suffering that came out of the period, World War Two is an inexhaustible source of great stories. Manhattan Project, Pearl Harbour, D-Day… The battle of Stalingrad, while less known in North America, stands as an equally fascinating event, a principal nexus of the Nazi’s Russian campaign and a turning point for, indeed, the whole war.
Numbers can only tell you so much: Both armies lost 1,109,000 men in that battle. The city’s population was reduced from 500,000 to 1,500 civilians, “Of the million and a quarter invading soldiers who rode across the Russian steppe to the gates of Stalingrad in August of 1942, fewer than thirty thousand ever returned to their homeland.” [P. 470]
But, as Stalin said, a million death is a statistic but a single death is a tragedy. In War of the Rats, David L. Robbins has found a way to humanize the conflict by focusing on that most personal of military killers, the sniper.
While no soldier is alike, snipers are a special breed themselves. While they carry a powerful scope rifle, their most efficient weapons are stealth and patience. They will burrow in an innocuous spot, patiently wait -sometime for hours- for their target to make a mistake, and then they will take a shot. One bullet, one kill. While they might take a shot from more than half a kilometer away, there’s no real distance between them and their target. While soldiers often have the luxury of convincing themselves that it’s always the guy to their sides who fired the lethal shot, snipers have no such comfort; each killing is theirs.
This sniper mystique is one of the many elements that come together successfully in War of the Rats. Based on real events, this novel is about the duel between a Russian and a German sniper in the ruins of Stalingrad during the fall of 1942. When the Germans become concerned about a Russian sniper hailed as a hero -Vasily Zaitsev-, they decide to take measures and send in their best shooter to track him down. It’s not the only story in the book, which uses this simple conflict as a springboard to describe the battle of Stalingrad, as well as a romantic affair between Zaitsev and an American-born (!) woman he trains as a sniper.
The historical authenticity of War of the Rats is deeply impressive, convincingly representing the atrocious conditions of the battles and doing its best to put us in the soldiers’ frame of mind during it all. Robbins has conducted good research (there’s a complete bibliography at the end of the book), and the results are there for us to enjoy. Zaitsev and Thorvald’s duel comes to symbolize the test of will between the two nations fighting over Stalingrad.
War of the Rats‘s principal flaws are its occasional lengths, which trade off energy for mood. The book is never snappy or flashy, but it does succeed admirably at building psychological suspense. It’s impressive to see what Robbins can do with a conflict in which both parties spend most of their time immobile, peering through a rifle scope.
This is a docu-novel that should immensely please war buffs and thriller readers to no end. Historically accurate yet no less exciting for it, psychologically claustrophobic and filled with suspense, this is a novel unlike any you’ve read before. Worth a detour.
(One last note: There is a recent film called ENEMY AT THE GATES, which also tells Zaitsev’s story though presumably not based explicitly on War of the Rats. Given the choice, see the film before reading the book. Not only will you be surprised at the differences between the film and the book -oh, those screenwriters!-, but the images of the film will help to ease you in the novel’s atmosphere. Though note that the German sniper Thorvalds looked nothing like Ed Harris.)