The story takes place during the first weeks of 1946, in or near the city of Berdichev (now Berdychiv, Ukraine). 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. Hasidism had flourished there; the 1920s saw police and court proceedings conducted in Yiddish. When Redemption begins, no Jews are left alive. 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. For the Gentiles life continues piecemeal, under the omnivorous eye of Stalin’s police.
Redemption, which focused on Jewish suffering and suggested that Soviet citizens perpetrated atrocities, was of no use to Soviet publishing houses. After the war, the official Soviet line was that the Nazis had targeted all Soviet men and women, Jews and non-Jews alike. The novel languished in émigré editions until the fall of the USSR. Only now, 50 years after its completion, has the novel been translated into English. 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.
At the center of Redemption is 16-year-old Sashenka, coming of age in hostile conditions. The war saw Sashenka and her mother migrate to Berdichev from elsewhere in Ukraine, and her father, a pilot, die in battle. Sashenka has spent her first years of maturity mourning her father and her home, battling typhus, and running from Nazis. 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. 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 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.
In a moment she changes clothes and runs off to a New Year’s celebration — her first ball. 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. 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. At home she finds her mother necking with a new boyfriend, and Olga and Vasya spooning in the kitchen. Sashenka throws a bucket of icy water onto the lovers and runs cursing into the night.
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 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. 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. 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.
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. This denunciation could mean death for the lodger Vasya, whether or not he was a collaborator (the novel never makes it clear). But Sashenka demonstrates little awareness that her actions have any moral implications. 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 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). A 2012 Russian film adaptation of Iskuplenie (directed by Alexander Proshkin) was released to the English-speaking world as Expiation. Out of all these, “atonement” seems the right choice. 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.
An example: While Sashenka is at police headquarters writing out her denunciation, she overhears an interrogation in the next room. A custodian is providing evidence about the murder and desecration of a Jewish family by their neighbor, the shoeshine man Shuma. This Shuma was arrested, presumably for collaboration, and has been spotted in a prison camp. 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. Shuma will not return from the Gulag cured of his carbuncles. 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.
Friedrich Gorenstein was born in 1932 in Kiev (now Kyiv), to Jewish parents, who named him for Friedrich Engels. His father, a professor of political economy, fell victim to Stalin’s terror and was shot in 1937. His mother fled with the boy to Berdichev, her birthplace. At the war’s outbreak, half the city’s population was Jewish. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Friedrich and his mother fled again, to Uzbekistan. On the journey his mother succumbed to tuberculosis, and Friedrich went to an orphanage. After the war he was found by relatives and returned to Berdichev. The town had lost its 30,000 Jewish residents: some escaped, most slaughtered. Gorenstein was 13.
Sashenka, like her creator, spent the beginning of the war elsewhere, and arrived to find the town half empty. Though she’s suffered, she is not implicated in her privation: her suffering is circumstantial, not tied to her identity or history. She has no debts to society to redeem — her father died a hero — nor does Sashenka accept that she has sinned against her mother. No one accuses Sashenka of wrongdoing — maybe they’re too scared — and in the end her mother only spends a few months in prison. If the novel hosts any atonement, it happens without conscious involvement, but rather emerges as a collective process, even a natural force. 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). Life extends itself over the wreckage: an atonement free of ideology.
Sashenka’s child comes out of a love affair that happens just after her mother is arrested. August, the surviving son of the family that Shuma murdered, has come home to give his parents and siblings a proper burial. Sashenka falls in love at first sight. 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. 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.
In a world in which meaning and chaos perpetually succeed one another, all release is conditional. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. If there is grace in Job, or in Sashenka, it is amoral. She is a hero of her time.
Leeore Schnairsohn holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University, with a dissertation on Osip Mandelstam. He teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University. His Twitter handle is @liorschnairsohn.