Originally published in Yiddish by David Bergelson in 1929, this newly translated (by Harriet Murov and Sasha Senderovich) version of Judgment is a chilling set of connected stories about the inhabitants of a shtetl in western Ukraine who live very close to an outpost of the Cheka—the Bolshevik secret police. The novel jumps from character to character, creating a fitting sense of chaos as revolutionaries, rebels, and reactionaries fight over every scrap of territory.
According to the foreword, Bergelson was a cutting edge Yiddish writer, keen to incorporate Modernism into a literature that most—then and now—associate mostly with folklore. Bergelson’s experimentalism is in full view in Judgment. Time is hard to keep track of. Tales slide into on another just like the characters do; one minute, you’ll be reading about a socialist revolutionary who got caught by the Bolsheviks and the next you’ll be reading about his cellmates who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are characters who appear throughout—a blonde who travels with a child and two mysterious cases, the injured but harshly committed captain of the Cheka, the aforementioned socialist revolutionary—but I couldn’t say that Judgment is any of their stories, really. Rather, Judgment is about a tangle of people who lived near the border between Ukraine and Poland at a particularly bloody moment in history.
The Modernist elements make for difficult reading. It’s hard to know what or who to focus on. It’s impossible to predict where the narration is going to go next and Judgment reads like a much grimmer (and fictional) history-in-moments than Teffi’s Memories. In a sense, this very much captures the destruction and turmoil of the post-Revolution Civil War. At the beginning of the novel, most characters are either trying to flee or make money off of the people fleeing. Things aren’t all that bad yet, but then the local Cheka start to round up anyone even associated with anti-Bolshevik activity and a group of violent rebels swing through. By the end of Judgment, it seems like all of the members of the shtetl are now in prison, dead, or missing.
Having read Judgment and, a very long time, The Zelmenyaners, I feel like I have another piece of the Russian literature puzzle. I’ve read the heavy classic work of Tolstoy, the surreal Gogol, the light and fluffy Teffi, the surreal Bulgakov, the blunt and sometimes vulgar Babel, and the deeply affecting Pasternak and Vasily Grossman. Judgment comes from a blend of the avant-garde and the traditional. I’m not sure what to make of it yet. What I know now is that Russian literature is a lot more diverse than many literature teachers would have us think.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 15 September 2017.