THE KING OF THE FIELDS

Singer's first novel in five years touches on many of his recurring themes (lust vs. reason, paganism vs. civilization, women as she-devils) but in a strange, largely unconvincing context: pre-medieval, primitive Poland, where assorted pagan tribes fight for control of rural neighborhoods, at odds over (among other things) whether to live by hunting or farming. ("Poland" comes from pola, meaning "fields.") The narrative—episodic, disjointed, melodramatic—more or less centers on Cybula, chieftain of a forest-dwelling, hunting clan called the Lesniks. He flees into the mountains, with other hunters, when the Lesniks are attacked by a raping, pillaging band of warrior-farmers intent on tilling the Lesnik's land (and subjecting them to field-hand slavery). Eventually, however, the two tribes achieve semi-peaceful coexistence—thanks in part to the marriage between the warrior-king and Laska, Cybula's comely daughter. Moreover, widower Cybula—who has a turbulent sex life with both aggressive Kora and Kora's scrawny daughter Yagoda—finds an unlikely soulmate in quiet, wise, homosexual warrior Nosek. Together the men make the long journey to the relatively modern town of Miastro; they buy goods there, purchase a Tatar concubine for the warrior-king, and also bring back with them Jewish cobbler Ben Dosa—who offers to teach the tribes reading and writing. But, when the travelers return, they find a society bloodily divided again: the warrior-king goes mad; his men run amok, killing and raping; Kora ("a bloodthirsty animal") leads the Lesnik women in a retaliatory bloodbath—and in human-sacrifice rites. (Ben Dosa, observing in horror, cries "Sodom and Gomorrah!") The barbaric situation is worsened further by the arrival of a charismatic, anti-Semitic missionary for Christianity. And the conclusion is ambiguous at best: Cybula rescues the Tatar girl (who loves Ben Dosa and wants to convert to Judaism) front human-sacrifice and is forced to flee with Yagoda—who kills mother Kora, now revealed to be a harlot as well as a monster. There are traces here of Singer's narrative magic: his slyly matter-of-fact delivery of horrifying information; his ironic treatment of philosophical quandaries. But none of the themes in this historical novel—man's essential primitivism, the joys of vegetarianism, etc.—emerge clearly or persuasively; the crude contrast between Ben Dosa's nobility and the foulness of the pagans (and Christians) will be off-putting even to most Jewish readers. And, simply as storytelling, this may be the weakest work of Singer's career: uninvolving, clumsily prosaic, more reminiscent of a bad-imitation Clan of the Cave Bear than anything in the Nobel Prize-winner's beguiling canon.

Pub Date: Oct. 10, 1988

ISBN: 0374529086

Page Count: 258

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1988

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS

These letters from some important executive Down Below, to one of the junior devils here on earth, whose job is to corrupt mortals, are witty and written in a breezy style seldom found in religious literature. The author quotes Luther, who said: "The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn." This the author does most successfully, for by presenting some of our modern and not-so-modern beliefs as emanating from the devil's headquarters, he succeeds in making his reader feel like an ass for ever having believed in such ideas. This kind of presentation gives the author a tremendous advantage over the reader, however, for the more timid reader may feel a sense of guilt after putting down this book. It is a clever book, and for the clever reader, rather than the too-earnest soul.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1942

ISBN: 0060652934

Page Count: 53

Publisher: Macmillan

Review Posted Online: Oct. 17, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1943

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