Tr. from the Russian by Venya Gushchin
Like one of the characters appearing in the pages of this book, Yevsey Tseytlin “is very sensitive to the way psychology manifests itself in a turn of phrase, in a silence, in a slip of the tongue.” Through the book “runs a melody, at times tender and lyrical, at times mocking and showy, at times mourning.” Rereading Silence is a diary and a confession, a portrait of an incredibly cruel epoch and of the narrator’s soul.
Tseytlin was born in Omsk (Western Siberia), received his education there, taught school in Kyrgyzstan for a year (an experience described in a memorable essay), earned a doctoral degree in Moscow, became an associate professor, and published a series of literary studies. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he emigrated to Lithuania, a step he never regretted. Still later, he and his wife and daughter moved to Chicago, but it was in Vilnius that he began to record the histories of Soviet Jews. His book with the memorable title Long Conversations in Anticipation of a Joyous Death (translated from the Russian into Lithuanian, German, Ukrainian, Spanish, and English) that brought him recognition, one may even say renown, recalls the time he spent in Vilnius.
The present book is made up of several parts, with essays, thoughts about both chance meetings and epochal events, and retellings of dreams (!). Uninfluenced by Freud but sometimes unwittingly replicating that scholar’s work, Tseytlin has been recording his own and other people’s dreams for years. Since his informants also came to America from the former Soviet Union, many of their nightmares are amazingly similar.
Tseytlin combines rare verbal skills with the ability of listening to and feeling for his interlocutors, so that even reticent old men and women who rarely, if ever, speak to strangers, open up to him. His friendly and compassionate attitude, in which nothing is put on, and his self-effacing manner account for his success as an interviewer. As a rule, people do not suspect how well-read Tseytlin is and how much he knows. Long Talks in Anticipation of a Joyous Death also consists of numerous talks, but there, with a single person, the once well-known Lithuanian Jewish playwright Jankel Yosade, who in the atmosphere of all-pervading anti-Semitism gave up his native Yiddish, switched to Lithuanian, and achieved success at the cost of ruining his personality.
This book is an attempt to break the silence of the scattered community of the former Soviet Jews and of course the author’s own silence. Tseytlin writes: “We lived forgetting our native language, not knowing our traditions, losing our national culture.” One chapter in the book (“Rereading Silence”) became the title of the entire book. The history of the Soviet and the Eastern European Jewry can perhaps be summarized by the title of Vladimir Nabokov’s book Invitation to a Beheading: pogroms under all regimes, forced or semi-voluntary assimilation; Hitler, Stalin, the erratic Khrushchev, struggle for emigration; the Soviet government’s persecution of those who attempted to leave the Socialist paradise and a partial exodus into the unknown. A little boy learns from his playmates that he is Jewish. “Mother, can nothing be done about it?” No.
Tseytlin spoke to numerous prospective emigrants. Some of these conversations happened in his friends’ apartments; others in unpredictable places, including the street in front of the Dutch embassy, which represented Israel after the Soviet Union severed diplomatic relations with that “Zionist” country. But perhaps even more often he spoke to those who, like him, ended up in Chicago, a city with a sizable community of former Russian Jews. In this book, he also devotes some space to a few outstanding literary works and personalities. Yet Rereading Silence only looks like a collection of chance fragments. Its composition resembles that of a fugue: Voices chase one another, crisscross, and keep reminding one of the initial themes. This volume is a classic example of organized chaos. Here is the first sentence of the book: “A motionless, almost frozen face. There is an obvious contrast with the anguished, halting words I hear.” And here is the last one: “Looking in the mirror, I always recognize my eyes. Gray, with little red veins, their light nearly extinguished. But still seeking something.” The “chaos” covers the years 1982 to 2020. The light has not yet failed.
Though the book is a kaleidoscope of fortunes, hopes, and disappointments, Tseytlin is a professional author and has been most of his life. Therefore, the role of creativity looms large in his work. He keeps asking what impulse engenders in people an ineradicable passion for writing, the passion to which we owe the existence of both masterpieces and literary garbage. After his emigration, he met a man who turned his life into an experiment and recorded it; a talented doctor who stubbornly refused to let a single line of his excellent prose go into print (his widow had fifty copies of his stories published but found only twenty-five recipients interested in getting the book); and a genuine extortionist, who milked his acquaintances for pennies and dollars, to bring out his next volume. Home or abroad, it takes all sorts. Naturally, these emigres also wonder whether literature in their language can survive in exile.
Silence engulfed Soviet Jews, because the authorities gagged them. They are finally free but seldom realize that writing is a skill and hurry “to put pen to paper” (nowadays, quills have of course yielded to computers, but the impulse remains the same). Tseytlin, a busy editor, is engulfed in hopelessly unprofessional memoirs and essays. Yet while refusing to publish them, he understands the motivation behind this stream: “The old profession is lost (it is no longer needed here), but the inner voice keeps telling you that your experience is unique and that the world should hear about it. Alas, writing books also requires professional skills. )
The struggle of the Soviet Jews for the right to emigrate was at one time the stuff of headlines all over the world. Did all of those who could escape from the land of the red pharaohs do so? Let us have no illusions:
Moses commanded the Jews living in Egypt to leave their home immediately and set off. Out of slavery. To the Promised Land. Why the hurry? Not because Moses was scared of the pharaoh pursuing them. He was well aware of the real danger: if he delayed their journey even a bit, the Jews themselves would have grown hesitant. . . . Only twenty percent of our ancestors followed Moses out of Egypt. The majority stayed.
History tends to repeat itself.
Among the characters featured in the book we find a brilliant student of Jewish history (he did leave Russia for Israel!); a former prisoner of the Kaunas ghetto (hell on earth); the only son of parents killed in the Holocaust; a baby adopted by a Lithuanian family (he discovered years later who he really was); a flaming Bolshevik, “exposed” during the Great Terror as a spy; a distinguished, even famous, poet, who once glorified the regime in Yiddish (he too was arrested and lost his mind during the interrogation); that poet’s widow, who spent years in the Gulag as a relative of an “enemy of the people”; an old writer who burst into bloom only in America. And in the margins, a medley of types, fears, phobias, and destinies.
Perhaps I may be allowed to quote a short passage that appears close to the end of the book:
“What was the most difficult part of writing this book for me? What will this book open up in your own fate, what will it clarify in your life? Those are the questions that are the hardest for me to answer. There is, however, nothing peculiar in asking those questions. When all is said and done, all authors, first and foremost, write for themselves.” (slightly revised)
Every good book makes us think of ourselves and compare our experience with those of the characters. As a result, we come away enlightened.
Since I first read this book in the original, I am in a position to evaluate the translation. The English of Rereading Silence is not only flowing, but one never notices that the text is a translation. Venya Gushchin has also found excellent equivalents for all the specific words and phrases that are so easy to say in Russian and so hard to translate into another language. (It will be probably unkind to finish my appraisal of this translation by saying that the second half of the text would have benefitted from careful proofreading, and I will leave my remarks unsaid.)
Those who will open this book, even if they know little or nothing about its scene and events, will close it enriched, because it invites understanding and compassion. Tseytlin described in broad brushstrokes a whole epoch in the lives of the Russian and Soviet Jewry and gave the reader a bird’s eye view of the emigres’ life in the United States. Such books also demythologize the country that today is again constantly in the news. There is nothing enigmatic about Russia, because all tyrannies look alike. Rereading Silence is a story of jailers and prisoners, and of those who succeeded in treading the freedom road. It does not breathe optimism, but it will make the reader wiser and more compassionate.
Anatoly Liberman is a professor at the University of Minnesota.
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