A Winter’s Tale: The Impossibility of Friedrich Gorenstein’s “Redemption”

At the war’s outbreak, half the city’s population was Jewish. ¤
The book’s Russian title, Iskuplenie, wavers in meaning between “redemption” and “atonement.” In German, it was called Die Sühne (atonement), while the French translator plumped for Le Rachat (redemption). This Shuma was arrested, presumably for collaboration, and has been spotted in a prison camp. His father, a professor of political economy, fell victim to Stalin’s terror and was shot in 1937. Gorenstein was 13. When she comes to him in bed, releasing all that blocked-up, food-squelching libido, the action implies a cosmic process that conforms to general biological and philosophical laws:
[T]hen the thirsting ended for Sashenka too and the sweet agony began, the blissful torment in which her strength dissolved deliciously and joyful moans erupted from her chest, and finally came the something never experienced before, a sense of disappearing, of the death of the soul […] a demonic, drunken challenge to life, nature, and impotent order […] acknowledging neither father, nor mother, nor motherland, nor love and all the rest of it […] this moment of conception, the only moment, ambivalent like everything in the universe, when life, deprived of the assistance of fantasy and reason, shows its genuine value, equal to zero […] But this effect […] rapidly fading away […] merely strengthens order and reinforces the purposive nature and meaning of life. If there is grace in Job, or in Sashenka, it is amoral. But Sashenka demonstrates little awareness that her actions have any moral implications. Using Soviet jargon to cover her lack of conscience, Sashenka capitalizes on the ongoing hunt for Nazi collaborators: “I know where a polizei is hiding,” she tells the duty officer, licking her lips in Dostoyevskian fashion. And the forces that propel this drama — through historical movements, through the characters’ bodies, through weather events — are defined by physical laws and biological cycles, not by a redemptive ideology. The novel languished in émigré editions until the fall of the USSR. The novel ends by introducing three new lives: a baby girl each for Sashenka, Olga the lodger, and Sashenka’s mother (released from prison on account of her pregnancy). When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Friedrich and his mother fled again, to Uzbekistan. ¤
Friedrich Gorenstein was born in 1932 in Kiev (now Kyiv), to Jewish parents, who named him for Friedrich Engels. Stumbling onto the edge of the Jewish mass grave, she scans the memorial placard and moves on in a haze of spite and self-pity. It is a purely descriptive ontology of purpose, a response to the most abject “Why?” with a silent “Is.”
In Redemption, it is the sky that offers such inapt spectacles, particularly as Sashenka helps exhume August’s family. If the novel hosts any atonement, it happens without conscious involvement, but rather emerges as a collective process, even a natural force. Only now, 50 years after its completion, has the novel been translated into English. ¤
At the center of Redemption is 16-year-old Sashenka, coming of age in hostile conditions. They are constitutionally unfit to bring new life into the world — yet they do: securing food and heat, having parties, making babies, and burying the dead. When we first meet Sashenka, she is ruining dinner:
[L]ast night she had dreamed that Markeev was pressing her up against some kind of wall, and it felt so sweet that after she woke up her entire body had carried on trembling and shivering for several minutes. She helps August dig his father out of a temporary grave, and accompanies him to his hotel room, where he raves about the impossibility of justice: “That drunken Catholic custodian talked about atonement [iskuplenie] […] I can’t imagine myself digging up the ground today and seeing my mother in the clay […] There are ten thousand lying in the porcelain factory quarries…” Sashenka offers herself to August as something to live for, a conditional release from hell on earth. Under happier conditions Sashenka’s behavior would be merely insufferable, but the legacy of the Holocaust and the present Stalinist terror distort her egoism into outright wickedness. The town had lost its 30,000 Jewish residents: some escaped, most slaughtered. She is a hero of her time. Sashenka falls in love at first sight. Out of all these, “atonement” seems the right choice. The war saw Sashenka and her mother migrate to Berdichev from elsewhere in Ukraine, and her father, a pilot, die in battle. He teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University. Blizzards mount and fall, stars shine and are blotted out, temperatures lurch, sheet lightning stuns the burial party as the sky passes through all manner of colors and moods. The janitor describes Shuma’s suffering:
“He’s sick all the time, with the sort of incredible diseases you can only catch in hell … The flesh on his legs is bursting open, his body’s all ripped and torn, so he can’t sleep on his back or his stomach or his sides, he goes to sleep on his knees, leaning his forehead against the wall, and the moment he falls asleep, he tumbles over onto the bunk, his carbuncles start bursting and he jumps up screaming […] That’s his penance [iskuplenie] for the little child…”
This is Dantean spectacle, a hell on earth with no exit. This cosmic oscillation smacks both of dialectic and of mystery, and when Redemption gets philosophical (which it does with accelerating frequency toward the end) it is to describe the oscillation’s influence on human thought and behavior. His Twitter handle is @liorschnairsohn. Redemption, which focused on Jewish suffering and suggested that Soviet citizens perpetrated atrocities, was of no use to Soviet publishing houses. DECEMBER 31, 2018
REDEMPTION IS NOT a happy book. Sashenka, like her creator, spent the beginning of the war elsewhere, and arrived to find the town half empty. An example: While Sashenka is at police headquarters writing out her denunciation, she overhears an interrogation in the next room. Sashenka has spent her first years of maturity mourning her father and her home, battling typhus, and running from Nazis. When Redemption begins, no Jews are left alive. Shuma will not return from the Gulag cured of his carbuncles. It might even be mistitled. After the war, the official Soviet line was that the Nazis had targeted all Soviet men and women, Jews and non-Jews alike. Hasidism had flourished there; the 1920s saw police and court proceedings conducted in Yiddish. This had been one of Europe’s most populous Jewish centers, a capital of the old Pale of Settlement, with both political and religious importance. Her body has recovered enough from these traumas to begin awakening into sexual maturity, but having no idea what to do with these new feelings, she turns them into rage against her mother and their destitute lodgers, a couple named Olga and Vasya. In a moment she changes clothes and runs off to a New Year’s celebration — her first ball. After the war he was found by relatives and returned to Berdichev. She thought it would be a good thing to put in something about Batiunya, and Markeev, and Zara with her gold pendants, and in general everyone who had laughed at Sashenka and mocked her. At home she finds her mother necking with a new boyfriend, and Olga and Vasya spooning in the kitchen. Sashenka dances with commanding grace, till a cadet spots a pair of lice crawling across her back, sending her running out of the building in humiliation. I repudiate her and now wish to be only the daughter of my father, who died for the motherland…” […] Sashenka simply couldn’t think of what to write about Vasya, Olga, and the master of ceremonies. In the end, we are pointed to the book of Job, where the Lord’s answer to Job’s complaint of injustice is to reveal terrifying spectacles of His creation, the monsters Leviathan and Behemoth. A custodian is providing evidence about the murder and desecration of a Jewish family by their neighbor, the shoeshine man Shuma. The cast of Redemption is destitute, traumatized, and beset by a restless police apparatus hunting out wartime collaborators. For the Gentiles life continues piecemeal, under the omnivorous eye of Stalin’s police. Indeed, the novel’s beauty and its truth rest on the knowledge that redemption is inconceivable and that life persists in its absence. Its emergence feels like the return of Persephone from the underworld — a Persephone who forgets to set spring in motion because she can’t stop telling stories of winter. The morning after the ball — New Year’s Day 1946 — Sashenka betrays her mother to the police for stealing the food on which they survive, and strains to drum up criminal charges against everyone who annoys her:
“My mother,” Sashenka wrote, “is a pilferer of Soviet property. On the journey his mother succumbed to tuberculosis, and Friedrich went to an orphanage. Though she’s suffered, she is not implicated in her privation: her suffering is circumstantial, not tied to her identity or history. Written in 1967 by the Soviet-Jewish writer Friedrich Gorenstein, the novel describes the reawakening of a decimated Ukrainian town at the end of Nazi occupation. She was seized by trembling now too, and she raked the porridge, patties, and doughnuts off all the plates, tipped them out onto the table and started grinding them together in her hands, watching the mingled mass, sticky with jam, oozing out between her greasy, gleaming fingers. What remains of them is a mass grave, likely the result of an SS-engineered massacre, along with scattered sites of murders committed by locals on their own initiative. And even if she were to gain this awareness — if she were somehow to be redeemed — there would still be the matter of the bodies in the mass grave, not to mention the ongoing injustice of the police. The story takes place during the first weeks of 1946, in or near the city of Berdichev (now Berdychiv, Ukraine). Sashenka throws a bucket of icy water onto the lovers and runs cursing into the night. A 2012 Russian film adaptation of Iskuplenie (directed by Alexander Proshkin) was released to the English-speaking world as Expiation. August, the surviving son of the family that Shuma murdered, has come home to give his parents and siblings a proper burial. This denunciation could mean death for the lodger Vasya, whether or not he was a collaborator (the novel never makes it clear). Life extends itself over the wreckage: an atonement free of ideology. The countless victims of the war have not been redeemed by the living; their murders won’t be paid back. ¤
Leeore Schnairsohn holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University, with a dissertation on Osip Mandelstam. Sashenka’s child comes out of a love affair that happens just after her mother is arrested. His mother fled with the boy to Berdichev, her birthplace. In a world in which meaning and chaos perpetually succeed one another, all release is conditional. No one accuses Sashenka of wrongdoing — maybe they’re too scared — and in the end her mother only spends a few months in prison. Near the end, the narrator presents Job 21:5 as containing “the very greatest wisdom, the most accessible to the human soul […]: ‘Mark me, and be astonished, and lay your hand upon your mouth.’” If there is a final authority in Redemption, it speaks in images of astonishment. She has no debts to society to redeem — her father died a hero — nor does Sashenka accept that she has sinned against her mother. All of it, the book argues, is the result of ineluctable forces — biological, tectonic, geothermal — rather than proof of any spiritual or ideological purpose. Indeed, Andrew Bromfield, the novel’s English translator, has rendered eight of 10 instances in the text of the word iskuplenie (including related forms) as “atonement,” and two as “penance.” The distinction is important: atonement describes the process of making good, while redemption celebrates its end.