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Review: ‘Redemption,’ by Friedrich Gorenstein, translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield

November 30, 2018

With literature in translation, good things often come to those who wait. In the case of Friedrich Gorenstein’s “Redemption,” the wait has been more than 50 years.

Gorenstein, a Soviet Jewish author, wrote the novel in 1967, but as with all his work before and after, it immediately fell afoul of the state censors. Refusing to toe the party line and produce instead bloodless, frictionless socialist realism that steered clear of taboos, Gorenstein left the Soviet Union for Berlin and published unhampered abroad.

Much of Gorenstein’s literary output has been widely translated in Europe. To date, though, only one of his short novels has seen the light of day in English. Reading the more substantial “Redemption” feels like finally being let into a dark and potent secret. With luck its publication will raise the profile of a principled and prodigiously talented writer and bring forth more unlocked secrets.

Set in a small Ukrainian town recently liberated from Nazi occupation, “Redemption” follows an impetuous and mean-spirited teenage girl on a turbulent personal journey. The novel opens on New Year’s Eve 1945 with 16-year-old Sashenka berating her widowed mother, a poor dishwasher struggling to make ends meet. “Father laid down his life for the motherland,” she complains, “and you pilfer things here on the home front.” She then storms off to her first ball, where she turns heads and melts hearts. However, when rivals spot lice on her clothes, she quickly slides from center of attention to object of ridicule.

Still seething and smarting the next day, she denounces her mother to the authorities. After her parent is arrested and taken away, Sashenka finds herself looking for new means of support. She gravitates toward August, a handsome Jewish lieutenant, whose family was betrayed and killed by their neighbors. They form a close bond that strengthens when she assists him in the arduous task of raising the dead from ditches and cesspits and giving them a decent burial.

But is this show of selflessness too little, too late, or might it be enough to help her change her ways?

“Redemption” is awash with brutal truths, rude awakenings and painful self-discoveries. Gorenstein doesn’t make it easy for his reader: His forbidding theme is the aftermath of the Holocaust — the aftershock of “ineluctable, planned murder” — and his protagonist is an unsympathetic young woman. But the darkness is not total; there are numerous glints of light, even pockets of beauty. Gorenstein skillfully crafts scenes, paints landscapes and conveys moods. We move from the shabby elegance of the ball to the snowy streets with their burned-out ruins. We watch with morbid fascination as Sashenka inflicts damage on others and then herself. Punctuating her many trials and errors are searching meditations on suffering and salvation, love and fate.

This is a bleak, hard-edged novel but also a remarkable and important one. Ignored for too long, Gorenstein deserves to be read.

Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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