Chaim Potok | Critical Review by Felicity Barringer

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Chaim Potok.
This section contains 740 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Felicity Barringer

Critical Review by Felicity Barringer

SOURCE: "Generation Gap," in The New York Times Book Review, December 1, 1996, p. 33.

In the following review, Barringer praises The Gates of November as a "fascinating" tale, though finds shortcomings in Potok's overreaching history of Soviet Jewry.

Acts of dissent in a totalitarian state can seem incongruously mundane. In some places, it is an act of courage to observe an anniversary, or to hang a sheet with a few words scrawled on it above a busy downtown street.

The last was what Vladimir and Maria Slepak did in June 1978, when they found themselves locked in their Moscow apartment by K.G.B. agents. "Let us go to our son in Israel," read their makeshift placard. K.G.B. agents rushed to break down their apartment door, and Vladimir Slepak—called Volodya by all—spent five years in exile in Siberia. It was the logical culmination of nine years as an "enemy of the people" who showcased the Soviet Union's refusal to permit free Jewish emigration.

Weeks afterward, when Solomon Slepak heard that his estranged son had been sentenced to exile, he had a heart attack and died. A dogmatic Old Bolshevik, he himself had narrowly avoided the net of Stalin's purges more than once, but always justified them to his son by citing the Russian proverb: "Whenever you cut down trees, the chips will fly in all directions." When his only son, and his two grandsons in their turn, renounced the society he had helped to build, he renounced them.

The men and women of Solomon Slepak's generation were young when they created a Communist state on the ruins of the Russian autocracy. Many didn't have time to grow gray before they were devoured by their own creation. And their children were only in their 50's and 60's when the edifice their parents built finally crumbled. A few of them, like Volodya and Masha Slepak, were as committed in their rejection of the state as their parents had been in creating it.

Chaim Potok has won well-deserved praise for his ability to describe the rifts between fathers and sons in novels like The Chosen and My Name Is Asher Lev. In Wanderings, he showed a facility for capturing and conveying accessibly the intricate panorama of Jewish history. In The Gates of November, Mr. Potok tries to do it all. Using the taped reminiscences of Volodya and Masha Slepak and their sons, he sets about telling a family tale, a tale that is enmeshed in Soviet history and that is part of Jewish history.

However, it is a tricky thing to write intimate portraits of individuals and also to make them actors in historical dramas. In this case, the result is an often ungainly mixture of the personal and the political, short on insight into the minds and hearts of the father and son whose histories and relationship are the core of the narrative.

Mr. Potok is on more familiar and comfortable turf when describing the Slepaks' struggle to leave Russia. But he overplays his hand: the Slepaks' chronicles are a part of the story of Soviet Jewry, yet the details of distant pogroms are not always a part of the Slepaks' story. Nor are Mr. Potok's all too frequent excursions into Soviet history. The book jolts backward and forward in time, as Mr. Potok tries to weave a larger history into the family narrative. More disconcerting, however, is the multiplicity of voices: now Volodya's, now Masha's, now the voices of their sons, most often Mr. Potok's. Sometimes this produces a cohesive narrative. More often, the result is cacophony.

But the tale remains fascinating. Solomon Slepak defied his mother's wish that he become a rabbi, fled from home at the age of 13, emigrated to New York, converted to Marxism, returned home, commanded Red Army troops in the civil war, murdered comrades and rose to the Communist Party's inner circles.

Volodya Slepak accepted his father's blind faith in Communism until a fierce quarrel in 1952, when Jewish doctors were being arrested on charges of poisoning the country's leadership and an anti-Semitic purge was apparently averted only by Stalin's death. Seventeen years later, he and Masha surrendered their comfortable lives for the dissident's lot: the slow choking off of employment, friendships and, eventually, freedom. Too often in The Gates of November they seem less three-dimensional people than simulacra, the literary equivalent of wax figures in Madame Tussaud's museum. Even so, their heroism as people and as Jews cannot help being moving.

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This section contains 740 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Felicity Barringer
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