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Der Zeuge (The Witness) - World Literature Today, 22/9/1996 (in English)

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"Le style est l'homme meme," the famous phrase accompanying the eighteenth-century naturalist Georges-Louis Buffon's reception into the Academie Francaise, always applies to anyone who writes, signifying, as it did in Buffon's case, that the manner of one's writing is specific to the person doing the writing, having nothing to do with revelation of character through style. Style, above all, is a distinguishing mark of a poet or writer of artistic prose, in this case Ilya Mitrofanov (1948-94), and his practice of the art of writing raises him high above the average practitioner. It is never easy to say what exactly constitutes the esthetic elements that make for excellence in style, unless it be the attainment of that perfect adequacy to the artist's artistic purpose. This purpose in the short novel Svidetel' (The Witness), here translated as Der Zeuge, is the first-person narrative of the life story of a simple human being, a barber, whose life's most intense and dramatic period was the incorporation of his native Bessarabia into the Soviet Union in 1940, accompanied by coercion from the new command structure, which affected social relationships and caused enormous suffering due to famine brought on both by prolonged drought and by mistakes in official planning and preparation.

"The Witness" recounts events that one has heard about in other contexts: the October Revolution of 1917, five-year plans, the collectivization of agriculture, terror, executions, the destruction of the social fabric, a listless and despondent populace. It happened here too, in the author's Bessarabia, in a remote corner of the world "without strategic significance." Yet even here, in this speck on the map called Kotlovina, the entire drama of the Revolution, starting with the so-called liberation from the rule of the oppressive Romanian barons, was played out to its horrible end with very few survivors to live and tell about it. The barber Fedia Petrovich was one of the survivors, a "witness" of the time and the events, and Ilya Mitrofanov, being the recorder, has been a good listener to the stories of his grandfather and father "about the most recent and the distant past of our region."

The novel's success is based on the vivid and laconic presentation of such characters as the local Communist Party boss Pavel Petrovich, his wife Revmira (i.e., Revoliutsiia Mira, "Revolution of the World") Filippovna, and their spoiled youngster Lenochka, all imbued with revolutionary zeal and deaf to the needs and hardships of the famine catastrophe among the local population. The barbers Fedia the narrator and Joska Finkelstein, and the tradesmen who come into the shop for a haircut or a shave, create that feeling of community and wholeness of long standing which is now being crushed as a source of stagnation and suspected counterrevolutionary opposition.

On the surface Der Zeuge is an expose of a very misguided attempt at "social engineering" and ideologizing of life based on the mistaken belief that existence can be improved upon and that we know how to do it. The failure of this venture has long been apparent and has been definitively demonstrated in recent years with the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. "The Witness" vividly portrays the excesses and failures of the socialist experiment in a God-forsaken corner of the Soviet Empire. At the same time the novel is more than an expose of mistakes. It is also a statement of human brotherhood, of fellowship and love, of the dim recognition of a shared humanity beyond ideological cliches (in the person of Fedia the barber, giving shelter to the distraught and frightened Revmira when the populace destroys the party headquarters, and also in the young Russian lieutenant who comes into Fedia's barbershop and shakes his hand like a friend, "like a brother"), and of the importance of one's home ground, one's nest, so to speak, of knowing where one belonged, of having a place one did not run away from in spite of hardship and misery.

Der Zeuge projects the speech pattern of a simple, uneducated man, creating a narrative strongly reminiscent of Nikolai Leskov and his skaz style in the nineteenth century. This style makes use of down-to-earth expressions, is unafraid of repetitions, takes notice of the simple things in life (of a person's outward appearance, of smells and fragrances, all very appropriate to a barber's profession), is not averse to rudeness in language and behavior, and above all is a stranger to all dissembling and pretense. The events told are viewed through the prism of recollection, which softens their horrible contours somewhat and which allows the theme of brotherhood to emerge and feelings of hatred to dissolve. Honesty and lack of pretense are the author's hallmark, and it is these features which characterize his artistic expression, his style, a style by means of which he "ingratiates himself with the reader" (Kenneth Burke).

Joachim T. Baer University of North Carolina, Greensboro
COPYRIGHT 1996 University of Oklahoma