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Indeed, the power of family to be a self-enclosed, self-perpetuating unit emerges from Kulbak’s depiction of the Zelmenyaners as a tribe of their own, possessing unique physical and social traits. Zelmenyaners have dark complexions, low brows and fleshy noses, and are often compared to animals and other natural things. They are “solid as an oak tree,” “simple as a slice of bread” and “brainless as sheep.” They have a characteristic sound, like “a soft snuffle of content such as is heard only among horses munching oats in a stable,” and even their own smell: “a faint odor of musty hay, mixed with something else.” They are, in a sense, their own breed of people.
Just as the Zelmenyaners seem to exist in their own anthropological category, Kulbak’s literary technique elevates their world into its own aesthetic realm. While living in Vilna and Berlin in the 1920s, he had written several expressionist prose works distinguished by their mystical flair. “The Messiah of the House of Ephraim,” from 1924, depicts a group of messianic peasants living in a fantastical rural landscape. In one scene, Benye the miller rides his cow to the edge of the world, where he confronts the demon, Samael. In Kulbak’s 1926 novella, “Monday,” the main character espouses a spiritual identification with beggars and a philosophy of absolute passivity, despite the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. While “The Zelmenyaners” marked a thematic departure from these books, taking domestic comedy as its tonic note, its methods were consistent with Kulbak’s earlier work.
Unlike a traditional realist “Family Saga” (the subtitle of the current translation), “The Zelmenyaners” does not proceed in linear fashion. Instead, it is constructed from a patchwork of observations, descriptions and stories that create a more-or-less complete portrait. There are chapters that are one sentence long, and one that consists entirely of a telegram that reads, “The Bikhov Shoemakers Cooperative has fulfilled its first-quarter plan in its entirety.”
Repetition and variation also feature prominently in the novel, giving it a fluid, surreal quality that is enhanced by Kulbak’s hallucinatory prose. When electricity is installed in the yard, cables lie on the ground “like strips of bandage,“ and the electric light shines in “the sickly gold window panes like a patient breathing through an oxygen mask.” The passage of seasons is a major atmospheric element, and Kulbak depicts beautifully the feeling of a hot summer day, a chilly spring morning or a winter night with frost “as green as old glass.” One of the most impressive displays of Kulbak’s fertile imagery is his virtuoso description of workers constructing the urban rail network in Minsk:
The slanting sun glanced off the burnished mirrors of their strong backs. Two hundred tanned torsos, brown shoulders forming a dark mural, moved to the easy rhythm of the work. Their muscles rippled like living creatures in a wave that ran down the street as though in a strange brown sea.
Here, workers’ bodies are compared to mirrors, a mural and a wave of living creatures, nearly in the same breath. Everything seems connected to everything else, forging the Zelmenyaners’ world into a single mystical whole.
Like many Soviet Yiddishists, Kulbak made a conscious decision to live in the Soviet Union, and as a writer he benefited from state support, working in the Jewish section of the Belorussian Academy of Sciences. Like most of his peers, Kulbak also saw the Soviet Union turn on Yiddish culture, and he was among the first Yiddish writers to fall victim to Stalin’s paranoia and anti-Semitism.
Yet, as Sasha Senderovich points out in his introduction to the current translation, “The Zelmenyaners” enjoyed a curious afterlife in the Soviet Union. Kulbak was posthumously rehabilitated in the 1950s, and the novel was republished in Russian translation in 1960, though by that time the political implications of the book had surely changed. Now, in English, they are hardly recognizable without the explanatory introduction and notes. Yet Kulbak’s work is a masterpiece for reasons that have little to do with its context. His characters are funny and pathetic, his prose delicate and inventive. His novel ushers the reader not into Soviet Belorussia, but into a world entirely its own. Like a Zelmenyaner itself, it turns reality into dream.
Ezra Glinter is the deputy arts editor of the Forward. Follow him on Twitter @EzraG