In this characteristically ironic tale, Isaac Leib Peretz recounts the tragic life of one of his best-known protagonists, Bontsha the Silent. By opening with Bontsha’s death, Peretz projects his narrative into the realm of the folktale, as he unveils before the readers fantastic scenes of Heaven, its host, and the proceedings of the heavenly court.
In the opening phase of the story, Peretz presents a summary of Bontsha’s traits and the troubled life he led. Bontsha, this insignificant man on earth, who “lived unknown, in silence, and in silence he died,” is born to a poor Jewish family. He silently accepts pain from the outset when, at the age of eight days, his circumcision causes him undue bleeding and pain. Even at his Bar Mitzvah ceremony, the thirteen-year-old Bontsha remains silent, failing to deliver the traditional speech expected of young Jews entering adulthood.
Bontsha also remains silent when, as a grown-up, he uncomplainingly suffers the miseries, pain, and poverty his fate bestows on him in a world too preoccupied with itself to notice the existence of those in need in life, illness, and death. All traces of Bontsha’s shadowy existence are soon lost; the ephemeral quality of his earthly life is confirmed when the wooden marker falls off his grave, to be picked up and burned.
Surprisingly, however, Bontsha’s death is known by everyone in Heaven, where his reception is excitedly anticipated. Although not noted for his holiness, fame, or righteousness, the silent Bontsha is accorded the highest honors (to the consternation of some saintly residents).
Bontsha remains, in death as in life, silent. Baffled and incredulous at the honors extended to him, he is certain that this is but a dream, soon to vanish as he again awakens to his hellish existence. Perhaps, he thinks, mistaken identity is the cause of this warm outpouring, soon to be reversed as in past experiences, when the error resulted in his becoming the brunt of embarrassed anger.
Bontsha’s fear becomes magnified when, finding himself standing in the magnificently bejeweled court in Paradise, he is certain that he has been mistaken for someone else who would merit standing in so rich a palace.
Bontsha’s trial begins; he, like all mortals, must pass before the heavenly tribunal to be rewarded or punished for his deeds on earth. His defending angel opens the testimony by presenting specific details to illustrate Bontsha’s eternal, silent suffering at the hands of others. Beginning with Bontsha’s birth, the defending angel details the sad life story of this humble man; the prosecuting angel mocks the defense’s testimony, but Bontsha’s advocate persists, recounting how this most silent, persevering sufferer lost his mother in his early years, only to be reared by a wicked stepmother whose stinginess with food was matched only by her generosity in meting out punishment. Bontsha was finally cast out of home (and on a cold wintry night) by his own father, a drunkard, to wander aimlessly and land in prison in the big city.
Silent even then, not questioning or protesting his imprisonment or the subsequent lowly jobs at which he works after being released, Bontsha continued to go through life. Finding a more decent job as a porter, Bontsha risked life and limb as he carried heavy loads on his back through crowded, traffic-laden streets. There too, however, he remained unchanged, often begging silently with his eyes only for the meager wages due him, accepting delays, and silently tolerating outright cheating. Bontsha never, says the defending angel, would compare his lot with that of others and would always accept his lot without a murmur against man or God.
A seemingly miraculous turn of events...
(The entire section is 930 words.)