March 05, 2019

A Grim Tale of Redemption

A Grim Tale of Redemption


By Friedrich Gorenstein
Translated by Andrew Bromfield (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018)

Redemption is grim and shocking; the heroine, Sashenka, a 16-year-old in a small Ukrainian village the winter after the end of World War II, is so full of spite that she informs on her own mother for having smuggled out leftovers for her and a destitute couple that has taken up residence on the floor of their apartment.

Sashenka’s self-consciousness and jealousy may be typical of unhappy teenagers everywhere: she hates that her mother, five years after the death of her soldier-husband, has found a boyfriend. Sashenka has contempt for almost everyone: her neighbors, her rivals, her charitable friends and the dependent couple. She sets her sights on a lieutenant, August, the son of the local Jewish dentist, whose entire family was murdered four years before by a neighbor when the Nazis rolled through. All the Jews in the village were murdered and most were buried in their own yards, some of them defiled in their shallow graves. A government clerk, as if with a sigh, tells August: “During the war people were buried anywhere at all, and now it often hinders construction work and the requirements of communal services. Foundation pits keep running into mass graves all the time …” (146) August has returned on a special leave to get his parents and siblings properly buried. No matter one’s familiarity with literature of the Holocaust, the details of their reinterment will shock.

Elsewhere in the novel are essay-like passages about love and maternity:

“… the feeling of motherhood — the highest wisdom to which a woman can ascend in love, a love that not only does not demand reciprocity but, by virtue of its own completeness, entirely excludes it, a bottomless, blind love with none of the torments and doubts intrinsic to sensual love” (118).

We see this when Sashenka’s mother, even before starting her prison term, forgives her daughter for having ratted her out! We are left to wonder if Sashenka feels the slightest twinge of guilt about sending away her self-sacrificing mother. Gorenstein muses: “…Christ’s love for Judas was so strong that Judas could not have had a grain of love left for Christ. …Such also is maternal love, the closest in nature to Christ’s love, and therefore children cannot love their mother, and the feeling that they experience is a different feeling altogether…” (107).

In the excellent introduction, Emil Draitser of Hunter College (CUNY) points out that Gorenstein (1932-2002) was an orphan, his father executed in the Great Terror, and his mother dying of disease when she and Gorenstein were relocated to Uzbekistan. In the early 1960s, after the literary journal Novy Mir rejected one of his novels, Gorenstein, similarly to Joseph Brodsky, decided to keep writing, but to not even try to publish in the Soviet Union anymore. This seemed to free him, in a way. Gorenstein’s previous novel to Redemption, Draitser observes, “was a full affront to the Soviet political system. It wasn’t even anti-Soviet, but a-Soviet; that is, it was written with complete disregard for what could or could not appear in Soviet publications” (xiv). A prolific screenwriter, Gorenstein was an uncredited author of monologues in Tvarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (xxiv).

The philosophical conversations about forgiveness and redemption are raised by a crackpot local academic and play out in various digressions ranging from Job to Jesus and are reminiscent of the wrought discussions of good and evil in Dostoevsky’s novels. August, the lieutenant, reflects: “There are ten thousand lying in the porcelain factory quarries… They were killed by fascism and totalitarianism, but my dear ones were killed by our neighbor with a rock… Fascism is a temporary stage of imperialism, but neighbors are eternal, like rocks…” (135).

Gorenstein emigrated in 1980 and lived in Berlin until his death. His work was only published in Russia in 1992. In his depiction of the mocked and addled philosopher, we can guess something of Gorenstein’s feelings about finding his literary freedom:

“…his heart had been oppressed for a long time by words that had accumulated over the years, incoherent and absurd words, full of contradictions, but living words, one never knew where they would lead and what they would combine to form. It seemed to him that for many long years he had used words that resembled stuffed birds, packed with sawdust, and moreover without accusing anyone or anything, apart from his own insipidness and pragmatism, but the consequence of his own cowardice had been that the living words had flapped and fluttered in his soul as if in a cramped, narrow cage, and now he was releasing them into the night, gesticulating feverishly” (119).

Draitser provides historical context that the novel and Gorenstein deliberately do not:

“After the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Soviets stopped publishing news of Nazi atrocities against Jews. Because of the Soviet information blockade, on the eve of the German invasion the overwhelming majority of the Soviet population was not fully aware of the threat posed by the Germans. As a result of this lack of information and the speed of the German offensive, most Jews in the western regions were walled off in the ghettos and then killed in the extermination camps” (ix).

The “Great Patriotic War” was called such in the USSR because officials “wanted to distance themselves from the responsibility of having abetted Hitler …” (xvi). As the Soviets would have it, World War II started not with the dismemberment of Poland in 1939 but with Germany’s invasion of the USSR in 1941. As well, “until the late 1970s, discussion of the Holocaust was taboo,” writes Draitser (xvi).

The Holocaust is not mentioned in the novel: the villagers are in shock and stumbling half-blind out of their own horrors, but even selfish Sashenka, trapped in her present teenage-hood miseries, has to occasionally confront the past: “she felt as if she had eavesdropped on some kind of dreadful secret, as appalling as a nightmare…” (49). The novel, as Draitser neatly sums it up, “addresses a much larger issue — the effect of the Holocaust on humanity at large… Could such horrific crimes perpetuated on such a large scale ever be fully avenged? Could any human actions ever bring about redemption?” (xx).

Redemption is a novel of “living words” which keep that question of redemption alive.


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