Books coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.
One does not conventionally turn first to Jewish literature to satisfy a thirst for adventure stories. Nevertheless, the past few weeks have seen the publication of two notable picaresque novels, both set in the European past, portraying Jewish protagonists on the move in a violent world.
Set in 1894 in Tsarist Russia, Israeli author Yaniv Iczkovits’ “The Slaughterman’s Daughter” begins in the shtetl of Motal, where Mende Speismann is suffering. Her husband abandoned her and their children months ago and is rumored to be living in Minsk. Mende struggles to maintain her dignity and sanity, but she ends up spending her 26th birthday depleting all of her savings to satisfy momentary cravings and then throwing herself into the river. She is rescued, but her deep unhappiness impels her sister Fanny to take action.
Contrasting with Mende’s conventional, domestic proclivities, Fanny is known in the town as a vilde chaye — a wild animal. She was tutored by her father, a shochet, in the art of kosher slaughter, and, prior to marrying a dairy farmer, acquired a degree of celebrity for serving as a rare female ritual slaughterer.
Fanny decides to take leave of her own husband and children to search for Mende’s husband and force him to sign a writ of divorce. Spontaneously accompanying her on her journey is Zizek, a silent man shunned by the town’s Jews as an ignoramus and goy.
We soon learn that Zizek had long ago been one of the Jewish kids at the bottom of Motal’s socioeconomic ladder that town leaders had decided to turn over to the Russian army to meet its mandatory conscription quota — back when conscription meant a commitment of many years, from childhood onward. Zizek had become a hero revered by Russian troops, but he returned to his hometown to live on its border and be treated as an outcast.
Fanny brings her slaughtering blade for protection during the journey, and, while I will avoid spoilers, her attempt to help her sister achieve the freedom to remarry will soon lead to bloodshed and a cat-and-mouse police pursuit. A clever inspector in the czar’s secret police attempts to get at the truth and make arrests, but his ability to do so ends up being dependent on his putting himself in the mindset of a Jew.
It’s a compelling tale, if a long one, and one of its beauties is allowing us to see how one shtetl family’s marital problems end up having repercussions that will reach the highest echelons of state power. And it happens because Fanny’s daring leads people to actions — even if they demand a great price — that mark stepping away from unfulfilling domestic lives, from the suffocating social rules of the shtetl or from a state that has been disfigured irredeemably by antisemitism.
Iczkovits taught in the philosophy department at Tel Aviv University, eventually leaving academia to write fiction. His writing has earned him considerable recognition, but this is his first novel to appear in English. Orr Scharf’s translation is terrific, rendering a work of contemporary Israeli fiction with the narrative feel of a much earlier era.
Published two weeks later, Canadian author Gary Barwin’s “Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted” is the energetically told tale of Motl, a 45-year-old Lithuanian Jew from Vilna on the run in the brutal aftermath of the Nazis’ 1941 invasion of the USSR. Soon joined by Esther, a young woman he meets while hiding in the forest, he embarks on a variety of escapades that include masquerading as Karaites, performing in a circus for Himmler and searching for part of his anatomy lost in Switzerland during World War I. Set against a backdrop of terrible violence, it’s an absurdist romp through humanity’s darkest days.
Motl’s perspective has been shaped by his love of cowboy literature, and he proceeds throughout as if he were a character in a Western. However, he eventually finds his allegiances shifting to the side of Native Americans, with their suffering connected to Jewish suffering.
Chillingly, we are reminded that Hitler, himself a great lover of Karl May’s popular Western novels, drew inspiration for his agenda of German Lebensraum (settler colonialism) partly from the American enactment of Manifest Destiny, which included reducing indigenous populations through starvation, disease, resettlement and bullets.
The narrative’s most striking feature is its abundance of humor. Barwin surely knew that there would be readers who would balk at a surfeit of humor in a Holocaust novel (although humor is not employed to portray the actual horrors), and I suppose that I’m one of those balkers. While I appreciate gallows humor, the insistent emphasis on word play and one-liners — though often ingenious — kept me at a distance.
While I would have liked to see more fully drawn characters, expecting realism is unfair, as Barwin’s tale is an exercise in wild imagination (as were most cowboy novels; Karl May never visited the American West).
There is something in both of these new novels, with their characters pursuing ever-shifting missions that include their own survival, that speaks directly to the struggles of Eastern European Jews, who often had very little control over their lives. As Barwin’s narrator notes, “Sometimes it’s better to just let history be a heap of fragments. Better not to connect dots, instead let it be one damn thing after another, a tragic picaresque.”
“The Slaughterman’s Daughter” by Yaniv Iczkovits, translated by Orr Scharf (528 pages, Schocken)
“Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted: The Ballad of Motl the Cowboy” by Gary Barwin (344 pages, Random House of Canada)