Break Events and Gelassenheit

Reviewed by Martin Kuester

While migration and immigration have always been of central importance in Canadian writing, there is hardly any ethnic or religious group in Canada whose fate has been dominated by migration as much as that of the Mennonites. This applies especially to the “Russian” Mennonites, who started out in Frisia and—after settling in Eastern Prussia and Russia (or Ukraine, in modern terms)—finally came to Canada. There have been a few books on Mennonite Canadian writing and on its surprising success, but Robert Zacharias’s Rewriting the Break Event is the best one to date.

Falling back on the theoretical framework of diaspora studies, Zacharias convincingly analyzes the writing of Mennonite writers of (mostly) Russländer descent. He shows a historic “break event,” the collapse of the Mennonite “Commonwealth” in today’s Ukraine in the early twentieth century, to be the “birth” event or “collective myth” underlying the self-image of Canadian Mennonites in their recent writing. Zacharias illustrates the importance of the memory (following Marianne Hirsch, we might call it post-memory) of the persecution of the Mennonites by formerly exploited Ukrainians and anarchists like the infamous Nestor Makhno. As we see in this taxonomy, the Mennonites do not necessarily have to be seen as a religious group: often, especially in the context of Canadian multiculturalism, they are viewed as an ethnicity. In his extensive introduction, Zacharias gives an overview of Mennonite migration from Europe to Canada and of the development of their communal identity relating to the “break event.” The chapters of the main part focus on the various literary re-tellings of the historic break event according to Zacharias’s own taxonomy: Al Reimer’s My Harp is Turned to Mourning is a prime example of the “theo-pedagogical strain” insisting on the importance of “faith in fiction” and postulating the importance of an attitude of Gelassenheit, “serene self-surrender and resignation to God’s will.” Arnold Dyck’s Lost in the Steppe represents the “ethnic strain,” which puts less emphasis on the religious message and more on communal identity, whereas Sandra Birdsell’s The Russländer represents the “traumatic strain,” working through the events by re-telling them in the safe haven of Canada. Finally, Zacharias interprets Rudy Wiebe’s complex narrative in The Blue Mountains of China as a “meta-narrative” experimentally problematizing its own act of re-telling and memorization.

That the collapse of the Mennonite Commonwealth is important beyond the field of Mennonite fiction is clearly illustrated in Karen Enns’ second excellent volume of poetry. In Ordinary Hours, she insists on the positive force of the ordinary and non-descript in the Canadian Mennonites’ present: “There are no communists in sight, high priests / or seers, prophets or angels,” as she puts in in her introductory “Prelude,” and “There is absence, not emptiness, / and something close to echo.” Her poems, often in the spirit of imagism or rather its musical counterpart, reverberate with the feeling of Gelassenheit or supreme surrender described by Zacharias. As she puts it in “Metaphor,” there is “More than words”: “an echo rises to the surface, / but with greater clarity, / greater force.”

This review “Break Events and Gelassenheit” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 226 (Autumn 2015): 133-34.

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