Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Mennonite's life story doesn't quite expose the man
TWO highlights of last summer's Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival were former Winnipegger Vern Thiessen's plays The Courier and Back to Berlin, inspired by his father's experiences during the Second World War as a Mennonite from the Soviet Union caught up in the German army.
Hans Werner covers similar territory in his exploration of the life of his father, John, born in Siberia in 1917 just after the Bolshevik Revolution.
Hans, a professor of Mennonite studies and Canadian history at the University of Winnipeg, takes his father's stories, gleaned from a lifetime of conversations as well as formal taped interviews, places them in the context of historical events, and compares them with information found in official documents and stories told by other family members to construct a compelling narrative of his father's life.
In doing so he discovers four identities for his father.
John, growing up in Stalinist Siberia with a series of stepfathers, experiences the transition from the German-speaking village to the collective farm and develops skills as a mechanic and an interest in flying.
However, as a youth he is drafted into the Red Army and becomes Ivan, though his German surname disqualifies him from training as a pilot. Once war breaks out, his skills as a mechanic and driver advance his career in the world of tanks and armoured vehicles.
Shrewdly aware of political realities, Ivan becomes Johann when he is captured by the Nazis. Although he tries to avoid military service again, eventually he is drafted into the German forces and again uses his mechanical and driving skills to survive until captured by American troops near the end of the war.
This checkered past creates some obstacles before Johann is able to immigrate to Canada and settle as John Werner in Steinbach.
Hans states that his book has two purposes: to tell his father's story and to "explore the nature of autobiographical memory."
Thus in each chapter the reader learns not only about the events of John's life, but also the process the author used to discover them. Most chapters end with an interpretation of the narrative in terms of various memory theories and an analysis of John's process of constructing his autobiography.
The Constructed Mennonite offers a compelling narrative. The war chapters at the heart of the book read like an adventure story full of daredevil escapades and narrow escapes.
John as Ivan, and later as Johann, comes across as a practical problem solver who takes the right risks and adapts to new realities in order to survive. And as Hans points out, his father adjusts the stories he tells to fit the milieu of the telling.
There are also the stories his father doesn't tell, some discovered by Hans through his research, others which remain untold. Hans subjects the stories to academic scrutiny, and uses them to discuss the relationship between personal stories and history.
This academic approach is good for objectivity but left this reader feeling that although he now knows more about history, memory and the Second World War, he hasn't quite met John Werner the man. Perhaps the experience of the son with his father is meant for another book.
Armin Wiebe is a Winnipeg novelist and playwright.
The Constructed Mennonite
History, Memory, and the Second World War
By Hans Werner
University of Manitoba Press, 190 pages, $28
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2013 J7