For the Relief of Unbearable Urges

by Nathan Englander

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 394

In his first story, "The Twenty-seventh Man," Englander takes on his most selfreflexive theme. The character of Pinchas demonstrates more than the randomness of religious persecution; he embodies the driving passion of writing as well as its power and importance independent of publication. Pinchas is different from his fellow inmates in two ways. First, his voluminous writings are unpublished. The other Jewish authors rounded up by Stalin's cronies published scathing attacks against the Communist regime. They represent half of writing's purpose: to change minds through mass readership.

Pinchas, on the other hand, represents the often unrecognized second half. Unlike the other prisoners who argue bitterly about their respective techniques in an effort to assert their superiority, Pinchas has no interest in either fame or esteem. Though the other authors write for political purposes as well as glory, Pinchas writes only because he loves to: "he had written because it was all that interested him, aside from his walks, and the pictures at which he had peeked. Not since childhood had he skipped a day of writing." The posturing of his fellow prisoners seems shallow in comparison to Pinchas' deep passion for literary production. The value of language, it seems, is not in the reading but in the composition.

Pinchas is one of many characters who give Englander an opportunity to turn his attention to the persistence and strength of Jews. This theme appears most clearly in "The Twenty-seventh Man" where "an eminent selection of Europe's surviving Yiddish literary community was being held within the confines of an oversized closet." Though clearly destined for the firing squad, these members of the literati remain defiant of their Soviet captors. They continue to debate the best strategy for uncovering Stalin's hypocrisy. The foundation for their strength, of course, lies in their religious faith. The characters in the story remain confident that they lie on the right side and that their persecutors will suffer after their deaths. When arrested, one of the writers says to his guards, "I did not say you were without orders. I said that you have to bear responsibility." Only by relying on God's power to punish can Jews remain sane in the face of the religious persecution suffered throughout their history. At every turn this faith proves invaluable for Englander's characters as they are denied the usual comforts awarded members of secular society.

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