The Knife Sharpener’s Bell: Back in the USSR
Rhea Tregebov’s tart first novel tells the story of Winnipeg Jews whose naive faith in Stalin prompts their return to Odessa
by Jim Bartley
December 12, 2009, Books Section
Award-winning poet Rhea Tregebov opens her assured and affecting first novel with a girl on a train platform in 1935 Winnipeg. Duly impressed by the snorting steam engine, eight-year-old Annette joins a gaggle of family and friends seeing off her father in his best suit and overcoat. Avram has hung up his butcher’s apron to visit the old country, with a budding plan for his family’s future.
The story unfolds as a tapestry of memory, Annette ranging over the decades from the vantage point of her life’s closing years. She’s hardly more than a toddler when she first encounters the neighbourhood knife sharpener of the book’s title, while on the street with older brother Ben. The wizened man’s strange grinding wheel and clanging bell fill her with dread. When she begins to wail, she’s told sharply to shut up.
“I close my mouth. I’m bad. The bad man out there. I’m little and I can’t do anything. Ben takes a handkerchief … spits on it, wipes my face.”
With these images fresh, we shift decades ahead, Annette an elderly woman and still at the mercy of hectoring loved ones. Visiting friends in the country, she takes a solitary stroll along a farmer’s lane. “It’s one of the things that drives my daughter crazy … a walk by myself along a country road at dawn.”
When a truck approaches on the narrow track and passes her, she’s acutely conscious of the gap between flesh and hurtling metal, “two solemn feet between me and what would end me.” The random imminence of disaster – sensing it will come, not knowing how or why – fuels this story.
Young Annette’s father owns the delicatessen under their Main Street apartment, but at heart he’s more proletarian than bourgeois. Both her parents, Jews raised in Ukraine, retain a powerful affection for their homeland, Avram’s nostalgia now augmented by a naive faith in Soviet ideals – especially Stalin’s official stance against anti-Semitism.
“The emerging Holocaust lurks like a slumbering monster.”
With the deli losing money, he and Anne launch a bid to return to their beloved Odessa with Ben and Annette. Negotiating a gauntlet of red tape, they succeed, even snaring a choice apartment through a well-connected cousin. When Hitler invades Poland, their hopes for a secure future rest on Germany’s precarious non-aggression pact with Stalin.
Tregebov’s voicing of Annette – whether child or world-weary adult – skirts around the gauzy pitfalls that tales of memory and loss can easily slip into. The child’s world forms a vividly sensory continuous present, while the adult Annette is our pensive, assessing observer, her hard-won hindsight precluding soft focus. Losses are unlyricized, nostalgia is tart rather than sweet. The short scenes, shifting from innocence to belated understanding, match up in ways that evoke the arc of a life in the snapshots of single pages.
Tregebov’s research is all but invisible, the fruit of her labours revealed through the tumble of events and characters’ perceptions. Boiled cabbage and glasses of samovar tea vie for immediacy with black-coated secret police and hulking Stalinist edifices. Odessa itself, and later Moscow, are integrated into the story with enough care and detail to make them almost characters in their own right.
The emerging Holocaust lurks like a slumbering monster, determinedly denied – especially by Annette’s mother – until it begins to claim victims. It forms Tregebov’s worst-case example for her larger exploration of innocent lives at the mercy of power and politics.
As things gather to a climax, the remembering Annette is always on hand, reminding us that events are recalled rather than present. It’s Tregebov’s one notable lapse. Whatever her concerns as a writer, for her readers the presence of these characters is already immutable. It’s as if Tregebov is afraid we’ll forget the story’s frame, when really it’s the picture itself that holds us.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail’s first-fiction reviewer.