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Dizzying reflections of a murderous century

Europe Central
By William T. Vollmann
Viking, 811 pp., $39.95

Who does William T. Vollmann think he is writing for? During the past two decades, this California-born writer has published eight novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, a book of photographs, a 3,298-page ''essay" on violence, and a hefty selected reader from his work. Add to this list ''Europe Central," his latest Dodge Durango-size novel, and the grand total of Vollmann's output tops 10,000 pages.

Vollmann's inability to turn this faucet off has made him something of a circus freak among writers, but to focus on this facet alone -- as it is tempting to do -- would belittle the scope of his ambition. Indeed, Vollmann seems to write long because what he wants us to understand is broad and deeply complex, fiercely resistant to simplification. His ''Seven Dreams" series is an attempt to capture, explore, and respin the tale of how whites conquered the North American continent. ''Rising Up and Rising Down" sought to create a moral calculus that could tell us when violence was justifiable and when it was not.

''Europe Central," not surprisingly, arrives with a fistful of ambitious visas to foreign countries, not to mention a new prism of moral quandaries. Set in Europe mostly in the 20th century, the novel asks whether good people could be caught up in the slaughter that came as a result of totalitarianism. It also asks whether history and nations have the power to steamroll individual will, or whether men and women inside totalitarian societies have moral responsibility for the actions they are ordered to take.

Although Leo Tolstoy actually wrote a novel about these questions, Vollmann seems to understand that steering such a large ship might be beyond even his capacities. As a result, he uses a different structure. Like Danilo Kis's ''A Tomb for Boris Davidovich" or, more recently, David Mitchell's ''Cloud Atlas," ''Europe Central" is essentially an interconnected collection of short stories. I interviewed Vollmann five years ago when he was still working on the book and he promised it would be only about 350 pages.

Somewhere along the way, Vollmann changed his plans. While Mitchell's collection formed an accordion, Vollmann's is a hall of mirrors -- each tale getting a kind of sister story that forms its opposite image. Enter the book, take a twirl around, and you are presented with a kind of kaleidoscopic portrait of life in Europe around the dawn of World War II, when totalitarianism was on the rise. Try to find your way out and you will become, well, a little lost.

This sense of claustrophobia and confusion is, one imagines, purposeful, as ''Europe Central" aims to show how totalitarianism occurred and how it felt on the inside, and to bring us up close and personal with the nubbly texture of history.

Although he is famous for his digressions, Vollmann knows the best way to do this is through characters, and there are many dozen here we get to know well. Some of them are invented; many, however, are not. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin make appearances, as do the opposing military leaders of their armies.

Vollmann has been criticized for being an insensitive inventor of female characters -- many of the ones who appear in his books are prostitutes. That charge will not stick with ''Europe Central," however, which brings forward a group of strong, brilliant, and three-dimensionally wicked women.

As he did in ''Rising Up and Rising Down," Vollmann storms into this highly charged bit of history. He asks us to put aside our preconceptions, to allow that there could have been SS with whom we might feel sympathy, Stalinists who were heroic -- if only on their own terms. Take, for example, the case of Kurt Gerstein, the SS officer who puts his own life on the line to try to save the lives of those he is ordered to murder. In the end, though he clearly sympathizes with Gerstein, Vollmann is no idealist -- he understands that the man knew his method of slowing concentration camp deaths by using diesel fumes would not stop the killing. Vollmann works his prose into a kind of green froth trying to capture the noxious reality of human beings warping their dignity before the greater power of the state. One of the book's central characters is another morally cloudy figure, Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who becomes a celebrated public artist during Lenin's time, and enjoys the benefits of such acclaim, not to mention Communist Party membership, even as he ''kept silent, feeling worms crawling in his heart."

The worm of history is insidious, this book instructs. And more American writers are beginning to understand how deeply it has burrowed its way into our lives, how much it has feasted on our sense of right and wrong. Jonathan Safran Foer does it in his new novel, ''Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," as does Tom Bissell in his story collection, ''God Lives in St. Petersburg." With this profound and fully realized new work of fiction, Vollmann asks us to put aside what we think we know of history and immerse ourselves in it once again. He posits that even if it is the devil that lives in St. Petersburg, not God, it is our duty to know him, too.

John Freeman is a writer in New York.

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