Themes

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Last Reviewed on January 9, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1162

Ability and Disability

Throughout the body of the text, the townspeople of Vasenka willingly “become” deaf in order to circumvent and defy the authority of the occupying military. Deafness, which is often looked upon as a sign of disability, is consistently evoked in the story to represent strength. Kaminsky inverts the traditional expectations the reader may have of the abled versus the disabled person by imbuing the “deafened” people of Vasenka with tremendous perspicacity and bravery. The soldiers, along with their replication of authoritarian discourse, can be seen as representing the traditional view held toward the deaf. In the section entitled “Checkpoints,” for example, the soldiers hang up signs which read,

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DEAFNESS IS A CONTAGIOUS DISEASE. FOR YOUR OWN PROTECTION ALL SUBJECTS IN CONTAMINATED AREAS MUST SURRENDER TO BE QUARANTINED WITHIN 24 HOURS!

This is an ironic announcement, given that throughout the narrative it is actually the soldiers who need to be protected from the “contaminated” population. This is true, for example, when Galya’s deaf puppeteers use their perceived innocence to lure unsuspecting soldiers to their deaths.

This also occurs in act 1, in the poem entitled “Above Blue Tin Roofs, Deafness.” The townspeople drag a drunken soldier out to the middle of the street, accusing him of having arrested Alfonso’s wife, Sonya. One part of the section reads,

In the center of the piazza
a soldier on his knees begs as townspeople shake their heads, and point at their ears.

The “pointing” here, in a conventional sense, represents disability, a loss of the function of hearing under normal social circumstances. However, under the circumstances that the townspeople have collectively created for themselves, it serves as a symbol of strength. The soldier’s executioners will not hear his pleas; thus, their deafness is transformed into a signal of their power over the soldier, himself a representative of the established authority. By inverting the conventional power structure in Vasenka, even for just a moment, deafness becomes an expression of ability, not disability.

Uses and Meanings of Performance

Kaminsky uses the metaphor of the stage periodically throughout the narrative in order to emphasize the performative aspects of both the townspeople’s and the soldiers’ behavior. He very clearly establishes this kind of setting in the opening poem of act 1, “Gunshot,” which begins,

Our country is the stage.

In the early parts of act 1, this serves both literal and figurative meanings. In the first place, the town has literally gathered to watch a puppet show in the middle of the street. This is where young Petya is shot, a soldier having mistaken his laughter as an act of hostility to martial law and the soldiers’ orders. There is a unique juxtaposition of behavior at this very early portion of the story. The townspeople, upon hearing the soldiers’ familiar order—“Disperse immediately!”—collectively grow silent and freeze in place. Their behavior is regimented and predictable, the result of a series of actions and responses that they must perform in order to survive in their authoritarian world. Petya breaks the mold by acting out and engaging in a new type of performance out of line with conventionally acceptable behavior, and he is shot because of it.

Petya’s death causes a figurative transformation in the behavior of the townspeople. His cold body, lying supine as the snow falls in his mouth, serves as the commencement for a new “act,” so to speak, in the everyday performance that the townspeople carry out. This new performance is a set of behaviors that directly defy military authority. In the poem “Deafness, an Insurgency, Begins,” for example, the speaker notes,

Our hearing doesn’t weaken, but something silent in us strengthens.

Furthermore, in “Alfonso Stands Answerable,” he explains that

our men, once frightened, bound to their beds, now stand up like human masts—
deafness passes through us like a police whistle.

The performance of the town has become deafness.

Finally, after Galya’s death in act 2, Vasenka resumes its traditional performative role. In “And Yet, on Some Nights,” the speaker concedes that the country has surrendered and that many of the townspeople will deny that any of the revolutionary activity ever happened at all. He concludes,

We are sitting in the audience, still. Silence, like the bullet that’s missed us, spins—

The Protection of Innocence

The primary catalyst of revolutionary activity in Vasenka is the endangerment of that which the town regards as pure and innocent. In most cases, this is childhood and youth. The defining event that compels the townspeople to revolt against military authority in the first place is the death of Petya, a young, carefree, innocent boy whose death is equal parts unexpected and outrageous.

Later in the story, Alfonso Barabinski is pushed to the edge of despair due to the execution of his wife, Sonya. Many times throughout the narrative, Alfonso characterizes the sweetness and purity of his wife in terms palpable to the reader. She has freckles that everyone in the town takes notice of. The love Alfonso feels toward Sonya conveys his deep sense of her inner purity along with his conviction to protect her at all costs. For example, in the poem entitled “While the Child Sleeps, Sonya Undresses,” Alfonso talks about how he loves to take warm baths with Sonya. Any two strangers, he ruminates, can have sex—“but with whom can you sit / in water?” Only one whose love runs deep and is thus worth protecting.

In act 2, Galya also risks her own life and safety in a successful attempt to rescue the infant Anushka from military custody. As she grows older, Anushka further comes to represent the purity and innocence that characterizes the other children in the narrative. In the poem entitled “Search Patrols,” Galya says,

Anushka

speaks to homeless dogs as if they are men,
speaks to men

as if they are men
and not just souls on crutches of bone.

Here, it is implied that her life is worth saving because she embodies a kind of innocence that has been lost among the other townspeople of Vasenka.

Finally, Kaminsky ends Deaf Republic with a potential premonition of future rebellion. However, this time the insurgency could reach the United States. In the poem “In a Time of Peace,” the speaker recounts today’s reality: that a boy can be shot through a car window by police as ordinary people purchase “shampoo / and basil.” It is a sign of how desensitized Americans have become to the killing of innocent people. Kaminsky further illustrates the scene as follows:

Ours is a country in which a boy shot by the police lies on the pavement
for hours.

We see in his open mouth
the nakedness
of the whole nation.

We watch. Watch
others watch.

This scene is strikingly similar to the opening scene of the book’s main narrative, in which Petya is shot by military authorities while the townspeople can only stand and watch. The implication may be that it is time for Americans to take a stand in order to protect innocence.

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