The Knife Sharpener’s Bell: Review
By Michael Greenstein, September 2009
Rhea Tregebov’s debut novel has been influenced by her several collections of poetry and children’s books, as well as her reading of Adele Wiseman and Anne Michaels. Yet The Knife Sharpener’s Bell is not as densely metaphoric as Michaels’ fiction. The cover design features a young woman in a red coat surrounded by snow-covered trees: her back to the viewer, she walks along a sepia pathway towards an unknown destination. Snow unites the Winnipeg and Moscow settings in the novel, while the crimson coat hints at the bloodshed throughout Stalin’s Soviet Union. The novel’s title refers to the recurrent sound that haunts the protagonist Annette Gershon from her childhood in Winnipeg to her later years in Moscow.
As befits the historical dislocations, the novel shifts backwards and forwards in time and place, switching from present to past tenses for varying perspectives. The “Prologue” opens with a portrait of Annette’s father in his brown suit, preparing to board a train in Winnipeg, 1935. She studies the vastness of the station: “I tip my head back and my mouth holds itself open, the vault of my palate repeating the vault above.” This repetitive “vaulting” is linked to the recurrent image of the ominous bell, creating a mise en abyme situation in which individual fate reflects the larger destiny of an entire society. The novel’s structure may be seen as Russian dolls-within-dolls, each layer representing another link in society. While the vault echoes life and death, the bell tolls for the same.
Abrupt narrative shifts betoken the changes in the fate of Annette’s family, those unexpected twists and turns when everything depends on the road taken or not taken, at various periods over the course of the twentieth century. “Speak when illuminated” are the opening words of the first chapter, but instead of referring to some form of wisdom, they unexpectedly belong to a sign on a subway elevator. Annette narrates in the present in Canada as a mother and grandmother, looking back and trying to make sense of the dislocations in her family history. She examines the meaning of home and homelessness, migration and nationality, change and identity. She remembers her father in the kitchen peeling an orange, and this Proustian memory triggers a larger resonance of life being peeled and shattered. Narrating from a child’s perspective, she wonders whose child she is. Her father, Avram Gershon, left his first wife in Russia to travel to Winnipeg in 1914; her mother, Anne Gershon, left Odessa the same year for Winnipeg where she marries Avram and has two children, Ben and Annette.
The sound of the knife sharpener has two beats, a light followed by a heavy one, and those beats provide the rhythm for the catastrophic events in Annette’s life. With the Depression making life so miserable in Winnipeg, her parents decide that life would be better back in the Soviet Union, so her father boards a train in 1935 for the return voyage from the New World to the Old. While her parents are mistakenly convinced that life under Stalin would be better for them, Annette misses Winnipeg, which she has always thought of as home. “The first year in Odessa, I clung to Winnipeg. Everything about Odessa reminded me of something else, as if I were living in two places at once, or no place.” Dystopia and a dysfunctional society lie at the heart of The Knife Sharpener’s Bell, since one of the meanings of utopia is “no place.” The Gershon family gets caught up in the second heavy beat of the bell, no matter which way they turn.
As a post-modern novel, The Knife Sharpener’s Bell also foregrounds the role of words, stories, and the means of recuperating history. The narrator experiments with numbers as a means of comprehending the Odessa massacre. The more distanced we become from historical events, the greater the need to approach them, so when Annette types the words “Odessa massacre” on her laptop, the search engine displays 306 hits in .32 seconds, an instantaneous distortion of history. These numbers may be both meaningful and meaningless. She examines events on October 16 and runs through an entire series of numbers through association and research. “Pick a number. You have 5,000, and then you have 19,000. Add 34,000 killed later in October.” But the figures can never be exact, and mathematical possibility in itself cannot do justice to individual suffering.
Nor are words sufficient in the prison-house of language. “Why do these stale words take the place of emotion? Genuine suffering is taken and puffed up at the same time as it’s turned into nothing. Using words to make the pain, the people . . . both less and more. Rhetoric.” Indeed, the novel raises the question of rhetoric: are poetry and fiction free of rhetoric? Ultimately the writer has to fall back on rhetoric to convey emotion. Any recurrent image constitutes a form of rhetoric, as does any allusion. Annette, the architectural student, keeps her copy of Chernikhov’s Architectural Fictions, for rhetoric is the cornerstone of a Diaspora that links Winnipeg to Moscow and Odessa, and recreates history over generations. True artistic rhetoric counters the false ideologies of political rhetoric.
Tregebov’s rhetorical bell tolls at the very end of the novel with light and heavy syncopation. “Could we ever have translated for them the unfathomable world we come from? What would Poppa have thought, O brave new world? Capitalism didn’t die, Poppa. Every surface gets covered with words intended to make us feel how empty we are so that we’ll want something. And my mother, my mother would have been sure about everything as she always was, would have packed everything tight into her suitcase of certainty.” Purity of style and diction at the end characterizes the entire novel: rhetorical questions highlight themes of translation–not only of languages, but of entire cultures. The Orwellian allusion (that in turn goes back to Shakespeare) becomes personalized by the address to her dead father, whereas certain political ideologies and systems live on. Superficial words remain inadequate to express gestures of despair and hope. Her mother’s role in the uprooted family tree was to provide stability, but her suitcase of certainty dropped into an abyss across the ocean.
From that emptied transatlantic luggage, the narrator turns to domestic details, the specifics of memory: “My father gave me an orange, once. I watched my mother make a cake. What they could give me, what they could never give me, resides in me still. There it is; the world. There it is; home.” Tregebov’s monosyllables, commas, and semi-colons punctuate the rhythm of the bell and knife that resound throughout The Knife Sharpener’s Bell, as the scars and wounds of Stalinism linger.
Michael Greenstein has taught at several universities in Canada and abroad, and is the author of Third Solitudes, as well as numerous articles on Canadian and Victorian literature.