A NOVEL ABOUT the Holocaust? No, rather about the period preceding the Holocaust. Which is just as well. It's been said that a novel about Auschwitz is, of itself, a contradiction in terms. A phenomenon that transcends and negates all possibility of communication; you can't use it to make literature.

Heavy Sand, nonetheless, does deal with the Holocaust. More specifically, the author, Anatoli Rybakov, shows us an unknown or not well enough known, side of it. Of all the documents, studies and testimonies published on the subject of the concentration camp experience, few are devoted to the fate of the Jews in the Ukraine or White Russia. Do people know that all or most of them were never even deported to the death factories? They were massacred on the spot by the Einsatzkommando. Rybakov's book ends with that event.

At the beginning of his story, children are playing, laborers working and old people are dreaming: they are dead without knowing it. They don't know, they can't know that on the other side of Europe, high up in the Nazi hierarchy, the theoreticians of "the final solution" have already condemned them. A mixture of fiction and fact, of agonizing truthfulness and muffled beauty, Heavy Sand permits a glimpse into a universe of ash and silence, one whose destiny, whether you want it to or not, will lie heavy on your own. You will turn its last pages with a catch in your throat.

Yet it was not without apprehension that I approached this novel whose Russian appearance, some years ago, created a sensation in publishing circles, in Europe as well as the USA.

I had met the author at a dinner party given by the Soviet Writers' Union in honor of the Presidential Commission on the Holocaust, during an official visit to Moscow. I remember discussions -- and speeches -- that led nowhere. From their two sides of the dinner table, the guests shared the fact that their work was inspired by what we call -- wrongly, but lacking a better term -- the Holocaust. For how does one speak of the unspeakable? How does one communicate a vision that cuts you off from others? Among the Russian novelists was Anatoli Rybakov. I was struck by his dignified features, by his deliberate and calm voice. I was touched too by his silences; I understood them as well as his words, and perhaps even better.

I dreaded reading his book: what if it were a tract? A social critique or a paean to the system? A Soviet version, non-Jewish and even anti-Jewish, of the war that the Hitlerites waged against the Jews?

Everyone knows that the official party line consists in passing over in silence the extermination of 6 million Jews. Although sensitized to everything that recalls the Nazi occupation, Soviet cultural officials appear indifferent to its Jewish victims. Between 60,000 and 80,000 Jews were massacred in September 1941 in Kiev alone; the monument erected to their memory scarecely mentions them; the inscription conceals their Jewish origins. Following the regular procedure, things are arranged to overlook -- or to make people overlook -- that Hitler and Eichmann had as their principal goal the annihilation of the Jewish people down to the last child. By being so general the Soviets aim to universalize the Jewish tragedy, which was nonetheless special and specific -- and why not say it? -- unique in the annals of humanity. In Russia, whenever the men and women in charge of culture and history -- and politics -- invoke the Jewish dead, it is to offend their memory.

But not Rybakov. His book isn't like the others; that is clear. Politics figures in it less than history and its effect on simple human beings, people capable of grandeur as well as pettiness, therefore vulnerable, touching, attractive. All of them are not gloriously altruistic, just as they aren't all egoists; and that applies equally to the Jews, Christians and Communists. It's not enough to be one or the other to merit all the virtues or provoke all the curses. Some Jews are full of virtue; others are full of fear; certain Communist workers are just, others are not. What then is different about Rybakov's book? His Jewish characters appear, for the most part, as the heroes of history instead of its victims. He evokes their life, combat and death -- with love, as though to give them a blessing. And through them, and around them, Rybakov depicts a whole society in turmoil, all the convlusions of an era presented within a microcosm: a city, a group, a community.

Center stage are two families -- the Ivanovskys and the Rakhlenkos, who live in a town that isn't named, but which resembles all the towns of the Ukraine or White Russia. Their common experiences make up the thread of the narrative: marriages and business affairs, disappointments and afflictions, pain and anguish, battles and death, battles and victories. In a sense, the history of these two families mirrors the century. We see them before the war, during the war, follow them during the Revolution, the Civil War, the first steps of the new regime, the first economic and police measures. Though far from the decision-making center, they are affected even in their daily lives. In Moscow, in Leningrad, leaders are imprisoned in the name of the great purges; in the novel, a simple shop foreman, Jakob Ivanovsky, is thrown into the teeth of the repressive machinery. Does Rybakov then admit miscarriages of justice in Soviet Russia? Oh yes, he does. He seems more courageous than his colleagues. At times he makes us feel the terror unleashed across his country; a phrase, a surreptitious glance suffice to make us understand that in those days in the country of the Revolution, justice could be flouted, or at the least misused.

Arrests, trials, reunions, betrothals, marriages, divorces, separations, birthdays: just ordinary life. All of which is shattered near the end with the arrival of the Germans. In a flash, everything is changed, polarized, broken. A growing tension starts to run through the narrative. The Ivanovskys are dispersed onto the battlefields and into the cemeteries: one is an aviator, another a partisan, the third serves as a liaison officer. The Rakhlenkos are also separated. They are everywhere, and each of them further advances the narrative. The ghetto, the days and nights of the ghetto. Rachel, the mother of the narrator, will endure them all, unforgettable in her steadfastness and courage: The first victims, the first deaths. The rumors, the refusal to believe them. The warnings of the partisans, the hesitations of the townspeople. The agony of the old, the torment of heroic children. Rachel is the silent mother who watches her young and beautiful daugher tortured to death on the cross. She watches the executioner get ready to behead her grandson. How does she manage to contain her outrage? How does she keep from lapsing into madness? Some of these scenes make agonizing reading.

In the end, when the last survivors of the ghetto, weapons in hand, decide to resist the killers, Rachel inspires them, encourages them and protects them: her role grows into an almost mystic one. She is the one who stays behind to shield the survivors on their way to join the partisans in the forest. Then she disappears; she feels into the countryside, as though to leave on it the imprint of her tragic and immutable beauty. And at that point one feels impelled to recite the Kaddish for her -- and for her family; for suddenly one discovers in this Russian novel a Jewish soul.

Yes, this Russian novel, written by the Russian Jew Anatoli Rybakov, is deeply Jewish. Sad and humble, Rybakov's elegy helps us to reach some primal memory where all words become testimony. That the narrative concludes in a Jewish cemetery, before a communal grave, suddenly seems quite natural. There on the tombstone the narrator deciphers the Biblical words: "Everything is foregiven, but those who have spilled innocent blood shall never be forgiven." The narrator has read them in Hebrew; and that also seems natural. Born Jewish, he once again becomes a Jew. This is when I understand just why Heavy Sand is so important: its author reveals a truth that others in the Soviet Union consistently try to stifle. He assumes Jewish suffering in order not to betray it. Translated from the French by Michael Dira