Last Updated on January 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1022
Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky takes place in the town of Vasenka, in a police state governed by an unnamed, authoritarian regime. It is heavily implied that Vasenka lies somewhere in the former Soviet Union; Kaminsky was himself born there but escaped to the United States in his youth. The narrative is made up of multiple interwoven poems that tell the story of how the townspeople of Vasenka resist the brutality of martial law through their silence.
Kaminsky unnervingly opens his story from a distance. In “We Lived Happily During the War,” the speaker ruefully notes how, in America—“the country of money”—people go about their lives as war devastates other countries. From there, readers are transported to Vasenka itself.
In act 1, Alfonso and Sonya Barabinski have organized a puppet show for the townspeople to enjoy. The opening line, “Our country is the stage,” implies that Vasenka and other places like it are similar to large theatres, just like the one the townspeople are currently in, where the citizens of the nation act in scripted ways in order to avoid punishment. A group of soldiers bursts into the theater, and everyone in the audience grows quiet—except a young deaf boy named Petya. Unaware of the danger he is in, Petya laughs at the movements of the puppets on stage. Mistaking this as an act of defiance, the soldiers shoot and kill Petya.
Alfonso, Sonya, and the rest of the townspeople are outraged, and they collectively “become” deaf as an act of insurgency against the soldiers. Over the course of the rest of the act, they work out a cryptic form of sign language that only they understand, which is illustrated from time to time after individual poems in the book. Every time the soldiers attempt to verbally communicate or issue orders, the townspeople point to their ears in response, a symbolic act of disobedience. Eventually, the soldiers take to the streets, installing checkpoints and declaring deafness to be a contagious disease. In this context, Kaminsky uses deafness to represent the townspeople’s resistance against the authoritarian rule of the military.
Around the same time that the military police begin to crack down on the spread of deafness—and just three days after Sonya gives birth to her child, Anushka—the military police abduct Sonya. In the days leading up to Sonya’s execution, the soldiers humiliate her by forcing her to strip and then accepting bribes from other soldiers for the chance to gawk at her naked body. Eventually, she is taken to the town square, where she herself gives the soldiers the order to shoot her:
Sonya looks straight ahead, to where the soldiers are lined up. Suddenly, out of this silence comes her voice, Ready! The soldiers raise their rifles on her command. (“Central Square”)
The town watches.
In the days after Sonya’s execution, Alfonso lapses into depression. The weight of his wife’s murder coupled with the anxiety of raising his infant child alone becomes too much for him to bear. He walks around the streets of Vasenka shirtless, allowing the falling snow to caress his exposed skin. Eventually, he kills a soldier captured by the townspeople, who are enraged at how many women the soldiers have executed. Once the military police discover the body of the soldier and realize that his murder was Alfonso’s doing, they arrest Alfonso and carry him away to prison in view of the townspeople.
The military takes the infant Anushka into custody, and Alfonso is hanged for his role in killing the soldier. Soldiers carry away Sonya’s body. After Alfonso’s death, in a poem entitled “Eulogy,” the townspeople remember Alfonso’s devotion both to his child and to the soul of his people.
In act 2, the reader is introduced to Momma Galya Armolinskaya, the owner of a puppet theater. Galya is a feisty and promiscuous woman who is unafraid to expose herself in order to curry favor with local soldiers. She is at heart a revolutionary who convinces her puppeteers and the townspeople to discreetly engage in violence against the occupying military. During the intermissions of performances, her female staff provide sexual services for military men and then strangle them once the soldiers have let their guard down.
One day, two of Galya’s female employees start kissing each other in Central Square. Using this as a distraction, Galya sneaks past the military checkpoint and rescues Anushka by hiding her in a pile of laundry. From this point forward, Galya takes care of Anushka.
The soldiers of Vasenka begin to brutalize the population once they realize that the puppeteers are using the theater as a front to kill unsuspecting soldiers. They begin to execute the women of the town en masse, one day shooting fifty at once. The townspeople begin to resent Galya for resisting the soldiers in the first place. In the poem “The Trial,” two women stop Galya:
My sister was arrested because of your revolution, one spits in her face. Another takes her by the hair, I will open your skull and scramble your eggs! They grab Anushka, then drag Galya behind the bakery.
Ultimately, the men of the town pursue Galya through the streets and cut her face. As the poem “Pursued by the Men of Vasenka” ends, Galya yells at the other townspeople,
Dig me a good hole!
Lay me nostrils up
and shovel in my mouth the decent black earth.
The next poem, “Anonymous,” begins with the image of Galya’s coffin, thus implying that she has been killed. The speaker concedes in the act’s final poem that the people of the country have surrendered to the exigencies of military occupation.
In the book’s concluding poem, “In a Time of Peace”—which, like “We Lived Happily During the War,” occurs outside of the main narrative—the speaker places the current situation in the US, where police officers indiscriminately exercise power and take people’s lives, against the daily mundanities and beauties of life. Both exist together, and neither invalidates the other:
How bright is the sky (forgive me) how bright.
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