The Metafictive Brilliance of Englander’s The Twenty-Seventh Man

23 09 2010

When presented to him the next morning, he signed the warrant anyway, though there were now twenty- seven, and yesterday there had been twenty-six.  No matter, except maybe to the twenty -seventh.

Short stories have to work hard.  Unlike novels, their big unruly cousins, the words, sentences, and paragraphs of a short story have to provoke, flirt and entice even as they speak.  Englander’s Twenty-Seventh Man is, in my opinion, a masterpiece; a short story that brings the genre to its idealized potential, a polished jewel that takes us to a forgotten corner of the universe.

The plot is deceptively simple: Stalin has ordered for the arrest and execution of twenty-six Yiddish poets and writers.  Somehow a twenty seventh name appears on this list, and he is detained and thrown in jail along with the others.  This twenty seventh man, a youth by the name of  Pinchas Pelovitz who has retreated from the world and spends his days scribbling stories at his desk, has never published a word.   Though he has no idea why he’s been arrested, he is amazed, and even a little flattered to find that the he has been imprisoned together with the writers.  In the brief time between interrogations and other abuse, Pinchas composes a story, and then recites it to the writers.  The story wins their esteem and approval, just before all of them are taken out and shot.

Though I’ve summarized the story, don’t think for a minute that this is any substitute for actually reading Englander’s original.  Because what Englander has achieved here is a combination of superior structural and technical design and a sublime reading experience.  I’ll try to explain why, starting with the basics and moving out from there:

Choice of historical period: When Stalin initiated the campaign in 1952, Yiddish was already a dying language.  By the time Englander stepped up to write the story, it was a dead one.  Though he was just a nineteen year old American, something about the event sparked Englander’s imagination, and led him to envision this unique, singular meeting of minds.  In doing this, he takes us to the site of a generally forgotten cultural atrocity, as devastating as burning the actual books, and with that, bestows on the murdered Yiddish writers a new kind of immortality.

Historical Sweep:  There’s us, reading this story at the end of the 20th century (or now, at the beginning of the 21st).  There’s the Yiddish writers – the culture they came from is gone, and the cultures that persecuted them are also non- existent.   And then, through the story that Pinchas composes, we get a link back to a time when Jews lived in shtetls and the study of Talmud was the most exalted activity imaginable.  In this way, we look back even further, to the Talmud itself.   So this story isn’t only about one particularly unfortunate group of men.

Characterization: In a few short lines, Englander manages to depict his characters both as men and as writers.  I’d much prefer books to shoes, Pinchas tells his captors.  In the summer I sometimes take walks without shoes but never without a novel.  I f you would have seat while I organize my notes.”  Or There was Moshe Bretzky, a true lover of vodka and its country of origin.  One would not have pegged him as one of history’s most sensitive Yiddish poets.  He was huge, slovenly, and smelly as a horse.   The subsequent behavior of the poets when they are rounded up and put together in one room is briefly but telling described.  There was the present situation to discuss, as well as old rivalries, new poems, disputed reviews, journals that just aren’t the same, up-and-coming editors, and of course, the gossip, for hadn’t they heard that Lev had used his latest manuscript for kindling?

Imagery: We’re in Russia in 1952.  Who knows what it was really like there?  The answer is that it doesn’t matter.  Like Babel, who also knew how to describe an complex reality with a single image, Englander gives us a few striking, singular descriptions, which plant the scene firmly and believably in mind.  Here he describes how Bretzky, the drunken poet, is moved from a whorehouse to the agents’ car: Twelve of the houses strongest companions, in an array of pink and red robes, froufrou slippers and painted toenails carried the giant bear to the waiting car amid a roar of giggles.  Or later, in the prison:  The bulb glowed.   And with light came relief.  What if they had been left in the darkness?  They hated the bulb for its control, such a flimsy thing.

Tone: This is a tragic story, but the tone isn’t tragic.  It’s matter-of-fact, detached and ironic, in a way that allows us to perceive the depth of the tragedy on our own.   This is, after all, a story about the end of Yiddish writing, against a backdrop of the end of Yiddish culture, against a backdrop of the end of European Jewry.  The story is permeated with death, but the tone is nonetheless light.

Metaficiton: Who is Pinchas Pelovitz?  To the Russian agents who come to arrest him and take him to his death, Pelovitz is a name on a list.  To the other twenty-six Yiddish poets who will share his fate, he is an unknown boy from nowhere.  But Pinchas Pelovitz, the dreamy introvert who spends his days in his room building a fictitious world, is the quintessential writer.  The fact that he has never published a word doesn’t matter.  When he’s thrown into a cell with Zusner, his idol, he behaves like an ecstatic fan.  And when he calms down, he begins to compose a story in his head.  Step by step, we see him develop and polish every sentence.  Neither the certainty of death, nor the fact that he is taken to be tortured can stop the flow of his imagination,  In the final moments before they are all to be executed, he recites the story to the writers.   Zusner pronounces it a good story.  Pinchas has won the praise of his idol.   When he is shot, it is with a smile on his face.  He has, in the space of a few hellish hours, realized the fondest hopes of every writer, and experienced, in distilled form, the trajectory of imagination, creation, publication and recognition. 

Meta-meta fiction: This in itself is a metaficitve story of transcendence.   But Englander didn’t leave it at that.  The story that Pinchas composes, thereby establishing his identity as a writer, is a tale of the supernatural.   It tells of a young man waking one day to find all the inhabitants of his village gone except for the Rabbi, whom he finds sitting alone in his study amongst his books.  The two established that they are the only two men left alive.  I wanted to know, Pinchas tells the Rabbi, which one of us is to say the prayer, (for the dead).

The writers, hovering between torture and death, nonetheless recognize that the story is about them.  It’s like a shooting star, one of the writers tells him, a tale to be extinguished along with the teller, and for one brief moment, the horror is vanquished. 

Even as we read it, we know that no reader will ever read Pinchas’s story. It will indeed be extinguished.  And perhaps we understand, as Englander does, that in losing what the Yiddish writers had to offer us, we’ve lost untold treasure.   The poets Stalin hunted down and murdered were the among the last Yiddish writers.  Who will say the prayer for them?  Who will say the prayer for Yiddish itself?

In spite of the tragedy, I think that Englander ultimately meant this to be a story of transcendence;  Pinchas Pelovitz is a fictional character, but the smile on his face at the moment of his demise is real.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: