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Fall 2022 · Vol. 51 No. 2 · pp. 206–208 

Book Review

To Antoine

E. J. Wiens. St. Catharines, ON: Gelassenheit Publications, 2021. 404 pages.

Reviewed by Dora Dueck

“An old man taking inventory of accumulated griefs and failings,” announces the preface of To Antoine by E. J. Wiens, “fanning smouldering memories, picking among the ashes for scraps of vindication.” The speaker in this novel, we learn, is Peter Enns, born and raised in a Mennonite village in Ukraine—at that time, part of Russia—who is caught up in the contradicting fates of Soviet, then German, rule. Both nations and their ideologies promise liberation but eventually deliver only suffering. In the turmoil and aftermath of the Second World War, Peter escapes his homeland, resettles as a refugee to Paraguay for ten years, and then moves again, to a small prairie town in Canada, where he taught high school and has now lived thirty-three years.

We also learn that Peter’s past has caught up with him. His photo appeared in the newspaper, one among a Royal Commission discovery of 158 “potential” war criminals “living among us, posing as respectable citizens.” He feels the censure of the townspeople, as well as the dismay of his wife, daughter, and granddaughter. While he scorns the judgment of “the proper authorities,” he does require judgment, he says, and to that end, writes a series of letters to his childhood friend Antoine, a Russian boy of privileged background who lived with Peter’s family for a time.

At first, Peter ranges over his life in a kind of overview, mingling memories of his formative years and Paraguay with his current circumstances and a recent visit to Ukraine. He remembers as an older person tends to remember and tell, as if unable to keep memories in one place or unfold them chronologically. They were born, he reminds Antoine, into “a world already seething” and Peter’s voice seethes too, thick with metaphor and description and biblical allusion, a language overwrought but at the same time powerfully effective.

As the letters continue, he circles ever more deeply into the larger history he and Antoine share, namely “the Bolshevik boot” on their necks which cost them both their fathers. In spite of the joys of a childhood in a lovely landscape, they face into ruin, though its nature may not be well perceived in the moment. Peter recounts how he and his friends waited for and welcomed the invading German army. “Down came the portraits with the big moustache, up went a portrait with the little moustache.”

In the refrain of inevitability Peter evokes throughout the letters, he asks, if there were one “who would reach his hand out to us,” be the motive Lebensraum or Blut und Boden, “and restore us a free yeomanry on our beloved steppe, who of us would not, in gratitude or desperation, {207} grasp that hand?” But he also insists later, “I was not a mindless product of my time and place. I made choices.” And “So did we collaborate? Hell yes, we collaborated. Even the livestock collaborated.”

Now fully German as it were, Peter retreats with the army, joins and participates, and deserts. There are also acts of bravery. In Paraguay, he says, he “remade” himself. He married and had children, became “a loving, devoted husband and father.” He attended church, though “not a believer.” When he immigrates to Canada, he gets through customs without needing to roll up his sleeve to reveal his SS blood group tattoo.

What happened to his mother, as well as what exactly Peter Enns did to become a person of interest regarding Nazi crimes, and why Antoine, with whom he shared only seven years in total, is the one to whom he explains himself—these are the questions that pull the reader through the dense and overly long middle of the novel. As the narrative pushes into the events of the war and German occupation and the difficult trek of old men, women, children, and youth away from their villages as Germany’s fortunes turn, and then beyond the war into the plight and fears of repatriation of the refugees, it slows and fills with detail and characters. It becomes something of a slog, fine writing and impressive research notwithstanding. It could be said, however, that this parallels the literal trudge and complication of these events for those who experienced them.

E. J. Wiens is a retired English Literature professor now living in Ottawa. In his virtual launch of the novel, he said that as a child he heard stories of Mennonites who lived through these times. In his academic studies, he encountered European high culture. That “rarified world” and the more limited world of the Soviet hinterland began to “feed off one another” and the novel formed to put this relationship “under a microscope.”

The release of To Antoine is timely, now that Ukraine is a war zone again. It is also highly pertinent to Mennonite studies, especially to recent investigations by historians that draw accusatory notice to Mennonite-Nazi collaboration. The novel also addresses age-old questions of theologians and the church (which doesn’t fare especially well here) such as guilt, shame, and justice. “What purifying rites are there,” Peter asks, “for those who have accepted the kindness of monsters?”

And what attention must be given, we may ask both historians and theologians as they advance fresh interpretations or well-worn theses, to the stories of those who experienced the complexities of “history” every day? Peter Enns does not excuse himself but neither does he grovel; while compelling, he is not entirely likable; he is too {208} subservient to heroes and monsters but also haughtily self-contained. In the opinion of this reviewer, at least, it may actually be fiction that best holds—and teases out—the human reality and nuance necessary for any consideration of the past. For that truth, this is a novel well worth reading and discussing.

Dora Dueck is the author of four books of fiction, as well as the recent Return Stroke: Essays & Memoir (CMU Press). She lives in Delta, BC.

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