“We do not breathe.”
So begins Kevin Vennemann’s Close to Jedenew. The story of an event. A day in July, 1941. A moment between evening and night. Between “what was” and “nothing remaining.” A survivor’s tale—of movement from the “we” to the “I.” A story of loss—“in the evening we sit, nine in number, at night we are six”—until no one but the narrator remains.
Living just outside the small farming community of Jedenew in eastern Poland, a Jewish family
[sits] behind the house in the midsummer evening sun on the narrow wooden dock that leads out into the pond behind the house, [they] sit and lie and swim in the sun and sit together reading and drink the first and last summer punch of the year.
The first and last summer punch. The last evening. The tale of a family’s personal Kristallnacht, and following holocaust, at the hands of longtime neighbors and friends—
“On this evening, this last evening, it is Antonina who says softly: They’re coming.” For hours the Jedenew farmers sit in the woods behind the house and drink and laugh and sing and play, and only after hours go by do we finally hear them coming out of the woods, singing at the top of their voices and marching over the ridge into the garden.
What happens in the twilight we are never told. Though at night,
we hear the Jedenew farmers singing and playing clarinet, accordion, as if they were standing directly beside us, and see their shadows, nineteen altogether, cut up in the shattered glass all over the floor, slowly passing by the window, we do not breathe.
As if struggling to recall, the narrator’s story of this event is interrupted by other stories, stories repeated so often as to be remembered clearly, but, which follows which is unknown, nor do we know how closely each follows each. Only the “we” and the “I.” Only the event, only Marek’s stories, only Father’s stories, only. Only Krystowczyk who leads the farmers to murder because he fears, because that which he has worked for is lost, because of the invasion of his country by both Germans and Russians, and because of the Jews. Because Antonina marries Marek, and bears his child. Because his pigs are killed by Father and Wasznar. Because Father, Marek, Anna, Antonina, Wasznar, Kacia, little Zygmunt, infant Julia, and the narrator are Jews.
Close to Jedenew is not an easy read—neither the narrator’s story nor Vennemann’s language in telling it.
Close to Jedenew is a story, itself shattered, in the aftermath of a family’s murder by friends and neighbors caught up in fear and anger and jealousy. A story, the language of which is, if not equally, perhaps more important than the story itself. Fragmented—as the windows smashed out by friends and neighbors, “the blue-white moonlight scattered on the kitchen floor”—the words appear and reappear, reflected by and upon each other again and again. Vennemann tells and retells the same few stories of times past, of events that happened—today, yesterday, and years ago—all contemporaneously, all in a single voice, a single point of view, only by way of that which the narrator has experienced. Only the things the narrator’s eyes have seen and the narrator’s ears have heard. When the “I” speaks it is someone else’s voice we hear, yet it is the narrator’s tongue that speaks—that speaks for the dead—that takes the then and makes it now. Deconstructed, reinvented, re-imagined. The shards and fragments rearranged and retold, reflecting and repeating in kaleidoscopic manner the thoughts and deeds of a life recalled—a life ended with the narrator’s own “I.” With the last line of the story echoing the first—with the final “we” gone, the “I” stands alone—from the first “we do not breathe” to the final “I do not breathe” we see the disintegration of both family and language.
The use of the “I” to name the narrator only occurs after she recognizes there is no one left but herself—after she is irrevocably alone.
Vennemann leaves the narrator unnamed—a young jewish girl in her early-teens—and shapes the story of her family’s destruction from the multiplicity of voices through hers. The voice that Vennemann uses however is modern, the language modern, and situated not only in a worldview informed by modern language, but by modern social, philosophic and cinematic conventions. The story relatively simple and not unknown to us, yet Vennemann forces us to deal with a language far more complex and for more frustrating in its structure and syntax than perhaps the story warrants.
Before she goes, we wait until the guard in the garden behind the house is alone and turns away from the ridge and from the woods, when she goes, Marek gazes silently after Antonina, gazes silently at the wall for a few minutes . . .
The first “she” is Anna (sister to Marek and the Narrator), the second, Antonina (wife to Marek). The first moment of “waiting” is after Marek and Antonina are dead, the second moment of “gazing” is during the winter, six months prior.
How he finds our farms close to Jedenew, three or four years ago Anna instead of Antonina now takes Zygmunt, scarcely one year old, on her arm every morning for weeks while we lie awake . . .
The first section of the sentence is the last of the narrator’s father’s tale, the last sections are the beginning of a separate tale regarding Antonina’s mother’s death. In each instance Vennemann switches from one story to the next with no indication of the switch until the end of the sentence, and this continues throughout the novella as a device, perhaps more clever than justified.
As well, the language of the story seems inextricably linked to the German language itself. And in translation, I wonder—is the idiosyncratic syntax of the German appropriately, and effectively addressed? Is there not some shift in the manner of time and tense, which to subtly understand, in German, is not apparent in English? Are we missing something, some nuance of language, that rather than leading to understanding is complicating it?
It is with questions like this I wish I had paid more attention during my German language and philosophy courses so that I might more confidently speak to them. But the narrative sits some sixty to seventy years previously. I play with possibilities, and wonder then at the state of the narrator today who might be influenced by such a worldview, who would be over eighty years of age if telling the tale today, and I wonder if dementia influences the story told? If the confusion in syntax, the breathless urgency and the world that was contained has been shattered by the mind as well as the years?
Vennemann has written a story that is both compelling and strangely off-putting, that insists we pay attention to both story and language equally, yet where story and language do not always support each other. The ability to explore a work of such complexity is enhanced by its brevity—the novella allowing/requiring multiple readings, and yet, though Vennemann’s Close to Jedenew asks for more readings it lays much in the path of such. Even after several readings, I am uncertain how I feel about this work. Vennemann strives for much, but I still do not know with a certainty that he has achieved that for which he has worked.
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