Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 600
The main action in the “The Twenty-seventh Man” occurs within the Russian village of X and its prison. Orders are issued from Joseph Stalin’s country house to arrest twenty-seven writers and take them to the prison on the same day so that they can all be killed by the same burst of gunfire. Pairs of agents are to carry out the arrests simultaneously and in secrecy. Four arrests are explained in detail.
The first capture is of Vasily Korinsky, whose wife causes problems by hitting one of the arresting officers in the head. Korinsky, who would have gone along peacefully, is knocked unconscious and dragged away. The second arrest is of Moishe Bretzky, who is found, passed out, in a whorehouse. Twelve companions, dressed in the frilly boudoir garments of the brothel, help carry Bretzky to the waiting car.
The third arrest is of an eighty-one-year-old writer, Y. Zunser, whose real name is Melman. One arresting agent has had a Jewish literature instructor, so he makes an effort to be respectful. The agents are especially worried about killing him during the arrest, something they had been warned against.
The fourth arrest is of the twenty-seventh man, Pinchas Pelovits, who lives near the prison. Pinchas at first refuses to go with the agents but decides his crime must have been to have read and enjoyed Zunser’s book. When Pinchas tries to bring along his notebooks, he is beaten unconscious and rolled, shoeless, into a blanket.
The story continues in the prison. The last four prisoners to arrive—Zunser, Korinsky, Bretzky, and Pinchas—are placed together in the same cell. Zunser, the eldest, expresses hope when he sees the light bulb illuminated. Korinsky complains about his personal comfort, Bretzky attempts to endure the humiliation, and Pinchas quietly works on a piece of writing he is creating while imprisoned.
The prisoners have impassioned discussions regarding writing techniques. The mood of the cell changes during a heated exchange regarding intellectual approaches to the Stalin regime. Korinsky identifies himself as a principal member of the Anti-Fascist Committee and the author of an ode, “Stalin of Silver, Stalin of Gold,” a national favorite. Next, Bretzky reveals his anti-Stalin theories and identifies Zunser as a writer whose accomplishments exceeded those of any other living writer in Russia. Even though Pinchas can quote Korinsky’s ode, he is elated at the thought that he is in the presence of the famous Zunser.
Another mood shift occurs after Pinchas is beaten. The guards beat Pinchas because he created a loud disturbance when he first learned that Zunser, whom he greatly admires, is imprisoned. Zunser and Bretzky exhibit their compassion when they try to help Pinchas by sharing their water and holding him while he recovers. Only Korinsky is worried that he will miss out on his ration of water.
The prisoners are then exposed to torture, and once again the mood shifts. Zunser and Pinchas hear each other’s screams, but Bretzsky and Korinsky react to the torture with silence. The narrator reveals that Bretzsky cries, not from the pain he endures, but because of his realization of the human cruelty involved.
Right before the prisoners are led out to the yard to be executed, Pinchas, the unknown writer, asks if he might share a story he created while he was in the cell. Zunser and Bretzky encourage him to recite it, but Korinsky cannot understand the point of listening to it. Pinchas’s gem of a story is highly regarded by Bretzky, Korinsky, and Zunser. All then file outside where the twenty-seven writers are shot simultaneously.
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