Two rough-and-tumble Polish grifters scam an American widow in 1950s Tel Aviv.
An eclectic novel, this gut punch by the late Polish writer Hlasko (The Graveyard, 2013, etc.) is very much an artifact of its times, but it’s a fascinating fusion of styles and rhythms from the Beat period and a moving play about the sacrifice of one’s dignity. The protagonists are Robert and Jacob, two Polish refugees living day to day in the stark early days of the Jewish state. Robert is the brains of the duo, a ruthless manipulator who plans his scams like Shakespearean dramas; Jacob is the beautiful boy who is starting to question his place in this dark world. “The worst part is that I have to feel ashamed twice….Both before and after the act,” Jacob says. “You’ve got no choice,” Robert responds. “That’s why you’re so tragic. Oedipus plucked his eyes out so he wouldn’t have to see the world. Think in similar terms.” Their modus operandi is defrauding wealthy American women visiting the newly formed country, fueling their binges of drugs, alcohol, violence and vice. Had this been written in America at the same time, we would call it noir, in the vein of Jim Thompson with a touch of Kerouac’s spontaneity. Somehow, Hlasko gives it a more barren, mournful tone, though, and a host of literary influences make this a must-read for scholars of the period. The author was a dissident who raged against conformity, and it’s easy to see the influences of Chekhov and Dostoevsky at play, but the novel most closely resembles The Stranger in both tone and character. A moving introduction by British novelist and journalist Lesley Chamberlain lends insightful context to both this dark, spare novel and the novelist’s own tragic arc.
A cheerless morality play that is as piercing and compelling as its Western contemporaries.