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,...
(The entire section is 930 words.)