Magazine article World Literature Today

Witness: Inside Jehovah's Witnesses Inside Catholic Poland Inside a Gay Life

Magazine article World Literature Today

Witness: Inside Jehovah's Witnesses Inside Catholic Poland Inside a Gay Life

Article excerpt

Robert Rient. Witness: Inside Jehovah's Witnesses inside Catholic Poland inside a Gay Life. Trans. Frank Garrett. San Francisco. Outpost19. 2016. 156 pages.

To many, the Jehovah's Witnesses are known for knocking on doors and leaving the religious tract The Watchtower in waiting rooms and laundromats. They have also been the butt of jokes and the object of ridicule. Witness Tina Fey's joke that "Gay people don't actually try to convert people. That's Jehovah's Witnesses you're thinking of. "

Witness is the story of Luke, a Polish boy born into a family of Jehovah's Witnesses, nine years before the sect was officially recognized by the Polish government, and the ostracism he experiences throughout his life: first, as a member of a "feline faith" in the predominantly Catholic Poland of the 1980s and 1990s; and, later, at the hands of that same faith and his family after deciding to leave the church.

Almost schizophrenic in its apparent lack of order, Witness is told in three interpolated voices. The first voice is that of the young Łukasz, which the translator domesticates to Luke. Narrated in present tense, Luke's voice makes the reader witness to a young boy who struggles to be accepted while adhering to the religious strictures of a fundamentalist sect that mark him as different from his classmates as well as his fellow Poles. More importantly, however, Luke knows he is different even from other Witnesses. Earnest in his devotion, Luke does what millions of teenagers do: he embraces his faith as a means of repressing everything that the faith tells him is sinful, especially his homosexuality. "Defellowshipping" is a pall that hangs over Luke's existence. "At night I sit in my tent and write, 'I don't accept myself. The knowledge of who I am hurts too much.'" At the tender age of eleven, young Luke writes a poem. Aware that Witnesses are not allowed to engage in such worldly pursuits, he signs the poem Robert Rientowski; in doing so, the second voice, Robert, is born. Narrated in past tense, Robert serves as both alter ego and mediator, between past and present, between actions and thoughts, between life inside and outside the denomination. Finally, Rient employs a third, neutral voice, Witnesses, to explicate the sect's dogma and teachings.

This apparent disorder serves an important narrative function: mirroring the chaos of identity that the troubled Luke experiences as a young man desperate for self-integration. Self-integration, however, comes at a high price. …

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