THE KING OF THE FIELDS
Isaac Bashevis Singer
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.