(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In diction, tone, and narrative perspective, Isaac Peretz valued the understated. He warned his disciples against verbosity, urging them to strip away all superfluous words. His own stories are noted for their brevity, his diction for its precision. His tone is always restrained. His prose style is laconic, virile, and unadorned, yet capable of conveying the most subtle nuances. Before he retold a folktale, he sought out all the variant versions so that he could pare away the rhetorical flourishes and restore it to its essence. The judge at Bontsha’s trial is speaking for Peretz’s literary philosophy when he calls out, “No metaphors, please!” and later interrupts, “Facts! Facts! Never mind the embellishments!”

Peretz’s angle of narration is always strictly controlled so that the events are viewed obliquely, or at a distance, or through a fallible narrator. By thus withholding the full resolution, he intellectually engages the reader. The enigmatic and the paradoxical are inherent in the genre in which Peretz worked: the wisdom story.

Peretz quickened the pace of the Yiddish tale. Instead of leisurely, winding sentences, he used a rush of phrases punctuated by dashes, or energy-charged fragments punctuated by ellipses—for example, the nervous staccato notes in which Bontsha’s stepmother is described: “She begrudged him every bite moldy bread gristle of meat she drank coffee with cream. ” The ellipsis marks are impregnated with how much has been left unsaid. The very elusiveness is suggestive.

“Bontshe the Silent”

Peretz’s most popular story “Bontshe the Silent” is a paradigm for most of his fictions. Its central scene of a last judgment recurs, in some form, in all of his tales. The orthodox tradition in which he had been reared is permeated with the idea of human beings being called after death to account for their behavior on earth. The details of these trials in the heavenly tribunal probably derived from his ten years’ experience as a successful lawyer, a decade that certainly familiarized him with court procedure.

The trial, which is dramatized, is preceded by an account of Bontshe’s death, which is summarized. The folkloric quality is preserved in the simplicity of diction, in the rhythmic repetitions, in the lack of description, in the unindividuated hero who is a type rather than a character. Without any temporal or spatial specificity, it is set in an unnamed locale which readers recognize as a city because there are crowds. Readers are given no distinguishing characteristics such as physical features; they do not even know what color hair or eyes Bontshe has. Peretz has honored all the folktale conventions, in which the heroes exist only to enact the plot, and any extraneous details would only distract from their function.

Bontshe’s function is to enact passivity; he is, therefore, mute. His inarticulateness is stressed by implied relationships with subhuman things. His death is no more noticed than if a grain of sand had blown away; the collapse of a horse would have aroused more interest. “In his eyes there was a doglike supplication.” Even nature is indifferent to his existence. His footprints have left no impression in the dust, and the wind has blown away the wooden marker over his grave. “In silence he was born, in silence he lived, in silence he died.” No glasses clinked at his circumcision; no speeches were made at his Bar Mitzvah.

The uncomplaining porter, bowed down from a lifetime of bearing others’ burdens, is welcomed into paradise by a blast from the great trumpet of the Messiah. Bontshe is terrified, convinced that they have mistaken him for someone else. Because of the ringing in his ears, he cannot hear his defending angel, but slowly he begins to recognize aspects of...

(The entire section is 1564 words.)