Kevin Vennemann is a new name for me and indeed for most of the world — he was born only in 1977. Thanks to Melville House’s Contemporary Art of the Novella series, which focuses on publishing the neglected art form, we in the English-speaking world get this strange little book by a very young German author. I was shocked that Melville House would publish the young writer’s Close to Jedenew (Nahe Jedenew, 2008; tr. from the German by Ross Benjamin). Seems like in such a limited publication series they’d want to focus on the novellas of the truly great. I was shocked, that is, until I read the book.
Before I give a brief description of the plot, I want to say that I did not intentionally place this review right after Malamud’s The Fixer, though the unjust treatment of the Jews is again the theme. This one, however, is markedly different. For one thing, Kevin Vennemann, from what I can tell, is not a Jew. Further, it is written by a young German who grew up when memories of the Holocaust are fading though the images remain. Also fading is the guilt. Hence, Vennemann’s novel has been heralded as the first Holocaust novel of a new generation, a generation that need not be concerned that stylistic flare will detract from the theme. While it seems all I’m reading lately is dealing with some matter Jewish, I’m no expert, but the style here is definitely the most important aspect of this book, despite its tragic story. Now, I usually don’t like showy styles. I think too much contemporary literature is actually nothing more than clever sentences stacked against each other. Who can come up with the showiest simile? How about ten of them in a row? Who can do yet another post-linear novel, telling a story that has no need to be anything but linear? And Vennemann’s Close to Jedenew has a style that stands out immediately. The difference is that Vennemann has used the style to get at a story and perspective that could not be told in a simpler way. As a reader, I quickly lost myself in the feel of the novel and was no longer drawn out of the story by striking writing.
The story takes place in 1941 in Eastern Poland, on a farm close to Jedenew. The Russians have recently left, and the Nazis are due to arrive at any time. Anticipating their arrival, local farmers begin a murderous assault on the local Jews who had been their friends for generations. They’d celebrated weddings together, the local farmers bringing most of the celebratory necessities. They’d worked together. One of the leaders of the murderous pack even had helped the children begin building a treehouse. These children are telling this tale. They are hiding in the treehouse. While Vennemann’s story is his own, events like this actually happened in the summer of 1941.
Translator Ross Benjamin has done an exceptional job translating from German what must have been a very difficult book. It’s a difficult book to even pull quotes from. A good way to describe the language is fugal. The following pulled quote may look like I’ve just negligently typed the same line over again (and again), but this is how it is:
We stand leaning against the oven, Marek and Anna stand together leaning against the kitchen door, and we count to one hundred, and we count to one thousand, and we count until Marek cries Now, and starts to run, and so we run behind him, stumble through the garden behind the house and over the ridge behind the house toward the woods, toward the field, and Antonina with little Julia on her arm twists her ankle and falls and remains lying in tears on the path that we cut in the field in May, and lays her head in her arms, as we could see if we’d turn around, but we do not turn around, we keep running, we run into the field and think: She falls, she lays her head in her arms, as we could see if we’d turn around, but we do not turn around, we keep running, we run into the field, we think: She falls, she lays her head in her arms, as we could see if we’d turn around, but we do not turn around, we keep running, we run into the field, we think: We are running without turning around even one more time to Antonina.
The book is also fugal in its dreamlike feel. Emphasizing this, though the book goes back and forth in time, often beginning a sentence in one time and ending it in another, the whole book is told in the present tense. The following quote begins sometime before the local farmers attacked. It ends with the children, dwindling in number, hiding in the treehouse watching the soldiers, who have started arriving.
We climb down, we go into the house and throw our jackets onto the first chair we come across, and to ensure that the treehouse is finished before winter begins, we arrange during dinner, our faces hot with excitement, to go back into the treehouse the next day, to finish building the treehouse, to put up the roof, to put in the door, the windows, the next day we get up at the crack of dawn and get dressed and wash as quickly as we can, and comb each other’s hair and braid each other’s hair and tie on each other’s headscarves and want to rush outside, outside it’s snowing. We lie on our bellies, scarcely dare to breathe, and lay aside the rusty hammers and nails as quietly as possible, we look across to our house and see that some of the soldiers are gathering before our house to receive before our house the first of the slowly approaching black trucks.
The use of present tense is most striking in sentences where its awkwardness jars the reader. I know I normally don’t like style to jar me out of the text, but it was so effective here, creating a disorientation that makes the book not only post-linear but out of time entirely. Here the book is told simultaneously.
It’s scarcely three months ago that Marek is not yet a doctor. . . .
It’s scarcely a handful of moments ago that we’re still sitting . . . .
The simultaneity of the book works well with the images. Forever the farmers are friendly neighbors. Forever they are tracking the Jews in the fields. Forever in the background Wasnar and Antonina’s farm burns. Forever the tree house is being built. Forever the nine, seven, two children are hiding in it. The book begins, “We do not breathe.” It ends, “I do not breathe.”
So I’ve said a lot about style here, and that’s a good reason to take Venneman seriously. However, an even better reason to take him seriously is that he seems to be aware of the extra-narrative function of his stylistic approach to the Holocaust. He knows that such a stylistic account of the Holocaust was virtually impossible in the last generation of German authors. It is good to note that German authors often tried to annihilate any sense of style from their accounts of the Holocaust for fear of appearing to exploit the event to bring attention to themselves. Vennemann seems to know, in a way only the most mature authors know, how his style affects his substance not just in his own book but in the entire genre. And, in a way only the best of writers can manage, he injects this awareness into his book. A father tells his children a story about how he came to the farm close to Jedenew. The children know it is not true.
That doesn’t bother us. For everything that happens at our home close to Jedenew is a story, we determine and decide, when we consult about how we’re going to deal from now on with the fact that Father’s story is not his at all, that he only pilfers his story from here and there and devises it as his, that we know nothing about his true story, and so also don’t know how he actually in reality comes to be on the farms close to Jedenew, but we decide that this story that he pilfers from here and there and devises as his is now, for our, his story, just as everything around us is only a story that can just as well be an invention as Father’s. That we preserve and keep for ourselves, or forget, or someday pass on, or can only remember for ourselves, once, twice, more often, and then can forget when we want, or must forget when nothing else is possible. But always remember and must remember again one last time when, as we decide, we have no other choice.