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Spring 2002 · Vol. 31 No. 1 · pp. 115–17 

Book Review

Liberty in Confinement

Johannes Reimer. Winnipeg, MB and Hillsboro, KS: Kindred, 2000. 163 pages.

Reviewed by Erwin Jost

Liberty in Confinement is a translation of Der Verweigerer, a German novel by Johannes Reimer, depicting the life of a conscientious objector in the peacetime Russian Army before the fall of Communism. A Verweigerer is a dissident, or rebel; in contemporary German, the {116} term is used to refer to someone, particularly a youthful person, who objects to the expectations and demands of his society.

Reimer’s novel begins with an argument between its central character, Vanya Richter, and his father. Despite his Mennonite background, the father is warning his son, who is about to be conscripted into the Soviet Army, not to declare himself a conscientious objector if he hopes to avoid serious trouble. Vanya soon finds his twentieth-century Russian Army environment to be in many ways as hostile to him as the sixteenth-century religious culture was to his Anabaptist forebears.

Reimer briefly gives his hero Mennonite roots, but without any particularly favorable emphasis. Vanya is identified as an Evangelical Baptist. We learn that Vanya had formerly been a Communist, and that at the technical institute he attended, he had given the impression he was an atheist. Reimer apparently intended to create only enough of a past for his hero to give meaning to his conversion to Christianity. As the story develops, Vanya finds himself “railroaded,” during his army induction, into regular military service without getting the slightest opportunity to exercise any of the astuteness he had confidently hoped would get him assigned to noncombatant duty.

Reimer is uncompromising in his development of his “love your enemies” theme, but his treatment never becomes preachy. Far from being a religious tract, this work is a consistently interesting narrative with a robust central character whose refusal to strike back enhances not only his own spirituality, but also wins the respect of those who first hate him.

This novel will appeal to a wide range of interests. Analytical fiction readers will appreciate Reimer’s knowing characterizations, especially of Russian military types. Readers with theological concerns will probably compare Vanya’s Christianity, characterized by an otherworldly obedience to Christ no matter what the cost, to the “no-cost” type of Christianity practiced by those who see in Christ mostly a free insurance policy against personal perdition regardless of how they live in this world.

The original version of this work shows Reimer in solid command of idiomatic German. Although the English translation is generally adequate, it frequently blunts details of Reimer’s expressions. Unfortunately, there are also other truncations, substitutions, and omissions throughout the translation. Actual errors are less frequent, and none that notably modify Reimer’s story. However, a few mistakes could reflect unfairly on his integrity. In the fifth chapter, for example, there are repeated references to Vanya’s immediate military unit of twenty to thirty men as an Abteilung. Within three pages this word is given four different {117} translations: division, squadron, company, and detachment, only the latter being correct. Readers may wrongly but understandably assume that it is Reimer who does not know the difference between a division and a company.

The Reimers and Ratzlaffs who read this book, as well as others whose ancestors left siblings behind when they migrated from Russia in the 1870s and 1920s, may find that this work gives them a glimpse into the more recent lives of their distant cousins in Russia. Such readers, especially, are likely to hope that Johannes Reimer has not written his last novel.

Erwin Jost
Corvallis, Oregon

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