ENG441b: Contemporary American Literature, Fiction
Prof. E. Joy
26 March 2008                           

Nathan Englander's "Twenty-Seventh Man"

Figure 1. Abandoned guard tower in Russian gulag

In each of the stories compiled in For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, Englander presents characters who possess distinct world views. His protagonists are all Jewish, usually Hasidim, and they view the world through that Jewish lens. To put it another way, his characters are not secular Jews who live according to prevailing societal laws. They are dedicated, devout Jews who follow the laws of their own culture and religion first, and the laws of society second (if at all). Because of this, the world is often a different place for them than for those who exist around them. Events mean different things, behaviors have different consequences. In “The Wig,” for instance, Ruchama must cope with the demands for more money from the man whose hair she purchases. For a secular personality, this may be the only consequence. For Ruchama though, the purchase and making of the wig has spiritual consequences. She must cope with the fact of her vanity, the shame that she should feel but does not, and eventually the reaction of her community. The way in which she lives her life, her devotion and faith, place her inside of a different world than most of Englander's readers may experience. Englander's protagonists raise the issue of the subjectivity of reality, the idea that the world is what we make it, that the reality we experience is ultimately defined by the way in which we view and live it.

I think this issue is raised most poignantly by Pinchas Pelovits in “The Twenty-Seventh Man.” Pinchas is a pure writer. He writes for his own sake and conducts investigations into the nature of the world through his writing. But those investigations are for him alone. He has no readers besides himself and does not seem to desire any. We are told that he “constructed his own world with a compassionate God and a diverse group of worshipers. In it, he tested these people with moral dilemmas and tragedies.” Almost all his energies are expended in the creation of a fictional reality, and those that aren't are spent taking walks with a book not of his own creation. However, despite this outpouring of energies into a fictional world, we are told that he is “gratingly logical” in his contact with the real world (perhaps because he conducts investigations into it through writing and so understands it).

And yet what is “real”? To us or to Pinchas? He has emotional responses to his writing. He laughs and cries at his characters and their situations. His entire existence seems centered around the creation, maintenance, and investigation of his fictional realm. He rarely never leaves his room except to take walks. Even his meals are brought up to him, as evidenced by his reaction to the agent's knock on his door--“Not hungry.” This other world he constructs--through “stories and novels, essays, poems, songs, anthems, tales, jokes, and extensive histories;” the entire gamut of writing it would appear--is ultimately more real to him than the world his physical body inhabits. It totals a great universe over which he presides as the “compassionate God,” for like the Jewish god he tests his creations both with hardship and joy. Pinchas and his world are a microcosm, a picture of our universe in miniature. All things (in his fictional world) spring forth from his mind as all things (in the real world) spring forth from the mind of Yhwh.

Pinchas is set apart from the other writers who are arrested and sentenced to death. They are a part of the real world, have their places in it. It is implied, and easily reasoned, that their work is an attempt to express and explore the real. Their writing is reactive. They respond to the real world through writing. Korinsky is a party promoter, for instance. His anthem to Stalin is “a national favorite.” Pinchas is different. His work is not political or laudatory or an expression of culture or ethics. It is life. He lives for the work alone, and the world does not influence his work because his work is a world, a different world, and he is creating it. The real world doesn't influence Pinchas's work and world because it doesn't influence Pinchas. He isn't a part of it. He lives secluded from it.

Now certainly, the real world affects him regardless. His disinvolvement in it doesn't prevent his name from making it onto Stalin's list, doesn't prevent the agents from forcibly taking him away to prison. But, neither does it change him. He barely notices his beatings, his surroundings. He never muses on what's to come, like Zunser does. He doesn't lament the cold of the floor, like Korinsky. He just wishes he had a book. And, he keeps writing. Something that none of the famous writers seem capable of. They are too defeated by what has happened. Not Pinchas. Even without the tools of his trade, he continues to create and craft his world, work a story into shape. He is even able to withstand (mentally) torture. His body screams, but his mind is busy honing his latest and last story. The real world does not touch his soul. The closest it comes is when Zunser admits to him that he is in prison and about to be executed because of a clerical error. “That I cannot bear,” he says. Had there been a cosmic reason, he would have no issue because the world he creates is a world of cosmic reasons, of tests by a compassionate God. The randomness of his selection defies his beliefs as both Writer and Jew.

In the end, Pinchas goes to his death with a smile on his face. He recites his final story for an audience, something he has never had, and receives compliments on it from all. His ending is tragic in its pointlessness. But it is also triumphant because Pinchas never once is swayed from his purpose in life. The world of his body may have gone mad and turned against him, but inside his head all is well. And this is why he is able to suffer his death so easily, why he remains whole and intact in ways that the others are not. Zunser has resigned himself to the outcome from the beginning, but is still saddened by it. Korinsky is unable to accept that such a horrible mistake has been made, that he, who has served the party so loyally, is about to be murdered as an enemy of the state. And Bretzky weeps openly at the state of the world as demonstrated by the Communists. Pinchas alone remains unchanged by the encounter, except at the end when he is shot. Pinchas alone dies with an uninjured soul, because he is not really there. He's in his fiction, more a part of that world than the one in which he and other Jewish writers are being put to death.

What does it all mean? That we can temper reality to our own purposes. That our interpretive framework through which we view the world can turn bad ends into good ones. That we, as individuals, decide what is real and what is not. Perhaps all these things, and perhaps not. I don't think the story answers the question. It just raises the issue. For ultimately, Pinchas is killed by the real world, despite his removal from it. It still catches up with him. But it doesn't defeat him really. It doesn't mar who he is. Because Pinchas is so strongly committed to writing, so enveloped in his created world that is more real to him than the real, in the end it doesn't matter that he dies. He stays true to his creative purpose. And I wonder if he still exists after he's dead because of it.

--Daniel Ising