The Slave – Isaac Bashevi Singer

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Based on The Magician of Lublin and this book, Isaac Bashevi Singer has got to be one of the best authors I’ve discovered this year. The canon of classic literature tends to be a crapshoot for a sci-fi fan like me, with offerings ranging from genuinely creative work to tedious investigations of boring middle-class individuals that are presumably intended to remind the audience of themselves, but I say that Singer deserved that Nobel Prize he got.

The protagonist of The Slave is Jacob, a Jewish survivor of Cossack massacre who is enslaved in a peasant village where he is forced to work with animals. (Can’t remember how he wound up there, I assumed he was a refugee, but maybe he was taken there?) He falls in love with Sarah, his owner’s daughter. Both his Judaism and her Christianity makes any sort of relationship taboo, but they manage. For a while.

I think I’ve said this before, but at times Singer’s writing is so vivid he reminds of Bruno Schulz. I don’t know how to describe how he does it, what adjectives to use, but the effect he has on me is that the images in my mind’s eye are in super-detailed colour-saturated HD widescreen. Maybe it’s how he handles his tenses?

Singer’s prose might be too good, even. There’s so much historical verisimilitude here that I’d be convinced that he was a contemporary of Dostoevsky if it wasn’t for the publication date on the copyright page. Look, if you’re an alien from the future reading this, and you mistook The Slave for a primary source on eighteenth century Poland, I forgive you.

His depiction of the Polish peasants bordered on racist, at time. I can definitely understand Jacob seeing only the worst in his captors, but the way Singer describes them as brutal incestuous savages made me very uncomfortable. I don’t know if Polish jokes are still a thing in America, but this book certainly wouldn’t help.

You should still read this. As for myself, I’ve got my eye out for A Crown of Feathers.

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