Posted by Tobias Carroll
Kevin Vennemann, Close to Jedenew
translated by Ross Benjamin
Melville House, 2010
The first line of Kevin Vennemann’s Close to Jedenew is “We do not breathe.” That first-person plural continues throughout the novel, Vennemann’s first following a collection of shorter works. It’s an appropriate choice, given his focus on groups, on associations and affiliations, some continuously shifting and some permanent. His setting here is Poland in the late 1930s, on the eve of being overrun by Nazi Germany and already overtaken by paranoia, nascent genocide, and the horrific illogic that arises from their union. Our collective narrator is a group of children hiding in a treehouse in the woods, watching the mob already responsible for the destruction of their home and the murder of some of their family. The seemingly innocuous phrase “the Jedenew farmers,” following a number of repetitions, becomes one of the more sinister in a book in which understated phrases acquire a terse and menacing air.
Vennemann’s structure here evokes panic — and even more so, it evokes a very shared panic, multiple minds each flying off in different directions, seeking different associations and alternate memories to process their current situation. The treehouse that provides them shelter is at once a source of wonder and an essential component of survival. It also exists in several different times and states: nascent, in the midst of its construction, and fully built. Each one offers a different take on the lives of these children — a hearkening back to a safer time, a more prosperous time, all of which is jarringly contrasted with the present.
The fragmentary telling of the children’s story seems at first to dovetail with a story told to the children by their father, involving a horse-drawn carriage, a winter storm, and the transportation of a corpse In the father’s story, paths cross and overlap under hazardous conditions but a destination is ultimately reached; it seems like a metaphor for Vennemann’s own approach to storytelling, save that it’s later undercut by a revelation about the origins of that story. Elsewhere, other subplots emerge, largely driven by the eldest son Marek’s burgeoning marriage and the crumbling of the family’s assimilation into the largely Christian society around them.
A third of the way in, the sense of time, location, and religion are all somewhat vague, though the jacket flap on the edition in hand made it fairly clear when and where the novel’s events took place. To some extent, that undercuts the more organic way in which Vennemann introduces these elements into the novel — that slow discovery of the what and the why, and the horror that it brings. More significantly, there’s a tension here between the specifics of this family, Marek’s experiences in particular, and the way in which Vennemann intends for this to be a synecdoche for a larger piece of history. Marek’s story in this is wrenching, and even more wrenching is the growing realization of the hopelessness of this group of children, isolated among a series of groups dedicated to their murder.
The full extent of the horror and the sorrow implicit in Vennemann’s subject isn’t necessarily achieved here. His prose, in Ross Benjamin’s translation, leads to some striking phrases: “The woods are as lonely and silent and black and impenetrably black as always,” and that echo, that “black and impenetrably black,” is perfect. And the ambition of this short novel is vast, as are Vennemann’s ambition, his conscience, and the quality of his prose. But it’s the discordant moments in here that prevent this work from filling the entirety of its promise, even as its author has demonstrated an abundance of admirable qualities.