I have just finished reading a remarkable novel, set in seventeenth century Poland. Well-read readers will already have spotted the likely author, Isaac Bashevis Singer, that amazing man all of whose voluminous writings were in Yiddish and yet who, from such an obscure base, nevertheless produced such high-quality literature that in 1978 he won the Nobel prize for literature, the most prestigious prize of them all.
This 254-page work, published in English in 1962 is rather difficult for me to describe, because, dealing as it does with a man whose religious beliefs dominated every action he took, it could hardly have been further from my own atheistic outlook in life. Yet the power of the writing not only brings to vivid life the appalling conditions of so many Poles in those far-off days but also produces such extraordinarily vivid characters as to command our continuous attention.
The book is called The Slave, and its hero is a Jewish man called Jacob who managed to escape the great pogram imposed in 1648 by the raiding Cossacks on helpless Jewish populations, but was thereafter captured by roving Polish marauders, who sold him as a slave to a man of property, called Jan Bzik. Bzik installed him as a herdsman on a hilltop, remote from other herdsmen, and pretty soon wakened to the fact that this man looked after his cows so expertly that they produced more, and better quality milk. As the only Jew in the community he had little to do with the ruffians who surrounded him, which was just as well, because they were constantly plotting his murder, an act from which they were ultimately dissuaded by their master, who had come to value the Jew’s sterling qualities, from which, of course his owner profited, even though the crooked landlord above him was getting away with a huge proportion of the earnings from his cows.
Jacob lived a minimal life in a shed, along with his animals, in touch only with the daughter of Jan Bzik, Wanda, whose task it was to go to him on the mountain every day with some minor supplies --- food and such to keep the man alive --- and to return to the village with two big buckets of milk. Almost from her first having caught sight of him, Wanda became enamoured of the big, generous strangely well-educated Jew, and, although inhibited from such advances by the fact that co-habitation with anyone outside the Jewish faith was punishable by death, he gradually became enamoured of her. Wanda took the initiative, but was firmly repulsed by a man determined to live according to the precepts laid down in the great Jewish books, with which he was not only well acquainted, but by whose instruction he was guided in all his life’s decision.
The novelist, a man open to the human heart and its strange decisions, knew better than his characters: before long, their lust for each other grew to such proportions that they had to give way. One stormy night, unable to make it back to the village, Wanda slept on some straw in a corner of the shed, but when Jacob awoke in the morning, there she was lying beside him in his own bed, and from that moment on, theirs was a match born of the Gods, whatever the books might say.
Eventually their union came to be accepted by the villagers, though everyone was aware of its unacceptable nature. Jacob even relaxed so far as to become a teacher for the younger children. But he still dreamed of his original home in the far-off town of Josefov, and when a visiting circus told him they went there from time to time, he asked that the next time they were there they might mention having met him and the constraints under which he was living his life.
Time passed, Wanda, courted by numerous men, refused them all for she never stopped dreaming of her wondrous Jew. She was taken on a visit by her father to a neighbouring town and on that very day some people turned up who said they were from Josefov, and when they were convinced they had found the Jacob they sought, they paid the sum demanded for him, quickly bundled him into their wagon and took him off, giving him no chance to gather his few possessions or leave any messages for anyone. On her return to find her Jacob gone Wanda could not believe he would leave her in that way, and slowly deteriorated into morbid loneliness. As did Jacob, once settled back in his home town, surrounded by Jews, and governed by all the demands and pleasures of Jewry. He constantly asked himself if his passion for the gentile could not be excused by the actual behaviour of the leaders of the Jewish faith as described in the sacred books. “Had not Moses married a woman from Ethiopia? Did not King Solomon take as his wife Pharaoh’s daughter? Of course these women had become Jewesses. But so could Wanda. The Talmud law stating that a man who cohabits with a gentile could be put to death by anyone in the community was only valid if there had first been a warning and the adultery was seen by witnesses.” According to such stern rules did people in those days order their lives. and with such reasoning Jacob, although convinced his lust for the woman was the work of Satan, nevertheless decided to return to find her, and bring her, whatever the consequences, back to his own home town.
All this he carried out, imposing on Wanda the need to pretend to be a mute, and to change her name, since her mastery of Yiddish was incomplete, and she spoke the sort of Polish that would betray her. Many people were suspicious that a man of such learning could have saddled himself with a mute when he could have had his pick of the most eligible women….but their subterfuge worked until events forced Sarah, as she was known, into speaking, and revealing the plot.
To say these were star-crossed lovers would be to belittle the grand passion that dominated them. The village, torn between those who supported their marriage, and those who regarded it as a matter worthy of death, of course would never leave them alone. Wanda/Sarah dies in childbirth, and Jacob is arrested and is on his way to a certain death when he escapes, returns to pick up the new-born infant, and thereafter disappears for twenty years, at the end of which, still drawn to search for the remains of his deceased wife, he returns.
I tell you, this is one hell of a story, fascinating in its description of the conditions of life hundreds of years ago, when the division between animals and humans was less marked than in the present day, at least at the peasant level. It is also a remarkable disquisition on religious faith, its cruelties and glories, its honesties and hypocrises. And it marks the passage in society of a genuine saint, trapped in a transcendent love affair, and the rocky welcome given him by those among whom he had to live.
(The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Avon books, published by arrangement with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 1962, pps 254).