The Upside-Down World of Baym Dnyepr: Penek harriet murav
We meet Penek, the hero of the first volume of David Bergelson’s autobiographical novel Baym Dnyepr (At the Dnieper), as a little boy of seven with his father:
Set in the 1880s-1890s Penek tells the story of its title character, the youngest and least-loved child of the wealthy Levin family. As Susan Slotnick argues, the first volume is a Bildungsroman.2 A 1936 review of the Russian translation of the novel makes a similar point. At the Dnieper is the ‘multisided and consequential depiction of the child Penek’s consciousness’.3 We follow the development of the child from ages seven to thirteen as his ideological awareness of economic and social inequality deepens, together with his artistic sensibility and powers of observation. By the end of the novel, Penek understands that his father’s wealth depends on the poverty and suffering of others. He no longer feels pity for his father, as in the passage quoted earlier, but for those his father exploits. His father’s death liberates him from any remaining sense of obligation to his own family, and his acceptance by the proletarian children of the hintergeslekh (back-streets) mark a new stage in his development. Bergelson’s novel, in tune with Soviet Marxist thought, makes the past accessible and meaningful as the bad old days, which the Bolshevik revolution
will destroy, leading in turn to the Soviet bright future. Isaac Bashevis Singer put it this way: the first volume of At the Dnieper provides the ‘psychological genesis’ of the hero as a future revolutionary.4 As Slotnick points out, Penek, as a Bildungsroman, assumes a path of linear progression: the little boy becomes a young man, changing and growing as he does so. The forward motion of the hero’s growth emerges all the more clearly against the backdrop of the cyclically recurring Jewish holidays as they are celebrated in the wealthy Levin household. Slotnick explains that readers can trace Penek’s changing attitude toward Judaism and Jewish customs by comparing his response from one holiday to the next.5 For example, he cries when he does not receive new clothes for the Jewish New Year in the fall and is forced to wear his brother’s castoffs, but by the spring holiday of Passover, he has a new suit made for himself at the local tailor as a way of satisfying his own desires and monitoring the labour situation among the workmen.