Bergelson's politically charged novel, first published in Yiddish in 1929, reflects on the dark absurdities of life along the Ukraine-Poland border circa 1920.
Set at the height of the Russian civil war, the book features an outsize cast of characters, Jewish and non-Jewish, struggling for survival as the Bolsheviks consolidate power. It's a time and place where everything is up for grabs—allegiances, ethnic identities, basic values—and madness reigns. Inhabitants of the (fictional) shtetl of Golikhovke survive by smuggling goods—as well as people and anti-Bolshevik propaganda—across the border. A seductive schemer known only as "the blonde" who considers herself a "devout Christian" will sleep with anyone—even let her body be "defiled by a dirty Jew"—to facilitate her trips back and forth. In a former monastery outside of town, people are interrogated and locked up at the whim of Filipov, an enigmatic, ailing enforcer for the Bolshevik secret police. For all the horrific truths at its foundations, this boldly modernist novel entertains with its bleak, coolly ironic humor. Among the memorable bit players are Bunem the Red and Hatskel Shpak, coachmen who take advantage of smugglers desperate to get out of town: "Jews fleecing Jews!" The initial chapters of Bergelson's book were published on the heels of Kafka's The Trial, to which it has fascinating ties.
Nearly 90 years after its original publication, this ahead-of-its-time novel by one of the best-known Yiddish writers of his era proves powerfully relevant in its first English translation.