The Knife Sharpener’s Bell: Journey Through Language and Fear
by Tanya Christiansen
The Knife Sharpener’s Bell, Rhea Tregebov’s first novel, is a tale of multiple migrations. As the child of Russian-Jewish immigrants living in Winnipeg in the 1930s, Annette Gershon is uprooted from her home when her idealist, Communist-supporting, and homesick parents decide to move back to Odessa in the USSR.The story traces the fallout from this decision as Annette grows up amid the perils of Stalinist society and the trauma of World War II. As an older woman once more living in Canada, Annette narrates the story in an attempt to sort through her difficult memories.
Tregebov’s representation of a seldom-discussed chapter in Canadian emigration history is carefully researched and wide-ranging. The early chapters of the novel depict the desperation and despair of Depression-era Winnipeg in order to make the Gershons’ decision to return to Russia comprehensible. However, our sympathy for them is mediated both by the betrayal felt by the child Annette upon being transported from her familiar world and by the constant sense of foreboding that pervades the text. This feeling is created not only by the reflections and hints of the older Annette, but also by the frequent bouts of inexpressible and seemingly object-less fear felt by her younger self. These fears are connected early on with the sound of the titular knife sharpener’s bell, an appropriate image as the novel spends far more time anticipating the horrid events to come than on describing them when they arrive. The deaths of most of Annette’s family in the Odessa Massacre are handled quickly but hauntingly, as are her eventual arrest and imprisonment in a Soviet labour camp.The true focus of the novel is on the experience of everyday Jewish life in the Soviet Union during the fraught years of the war and the Terror, as Annette’s nameless fears gradually take shape in the pervasive power of the Soviet state, though in that form they still remain impossible for her to fully articulate until years later.
Unsurprisingly, given Tregebov’s work as a poet, the novel is particularly interested in how language is lived. Annette navigates between English, Yiddish, and Russian, each discouraged or promoted as her situation and the society around her change. She experiences Yiddish and Russian as the tongues of her passive father and domineering mother, respectively. Her Yiddish is increasingly silenced as Soviet anti-Semitic sentiment grows, while she initially thinks of the Cyrillic alphabet as a “betrayal.” Annette’s sense of herself as always foreign, always somehow outside of the collective group, seems to stem as much from her multilingualism as from her Jewish background. In one particularly interesting scene, she is the only person in a cinema able to understand both sides of the propaganda in an American newsreel overlaid with Russian subtitles. These encounters with the vagaries of language contribute to Annette’s search for order, perfection, and a sense of home in architecture, although even buildings have political meaning, as her frequent musings on the subject remind us.
Tregebov’s poetic background also appears in the novel’s lyrical narration, particularly during the many dream passages. These sections feel almost overloaded with symbols that accrue increasing meaning as the novel progresses, but they serve to convey the fears and observations that are inexpressible in Annette’s waking life. They also help underline the central idea of the novel Annette continues to return to as she contemplates her parents’ choice, that all aspects of human life, including buildings, wars, governments, and nations, are first dreamt into being by believers.
MLA: Christiansen, Tanya. Journey Through Language and Fear. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 Dec. 2011.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #207 (Winter 2010), Mordecai Richler. (pg. 176 – 177)