May 5, 2010

The Slave

I've had a hard time organizing myself as to getting the right books on my list at the right time. My next book is supposed to be Hans Christian Andersen, Fairy Tales and Stories. It's ordered on Amazon and will be coming to me soon, I hope.

In the meantime, Skywalker went to a book sale at UCSF while we were down there a few weeks ago. He bought a volume of poetry by John Donne as well as The Slave, by Issac Singer. And this is not on my list, but it is a classic. I know, I know. Well, I'm doing my best! So I think I'm still following my goal. Anyway, here's my Blessay on The Slave.


The writing is ingenious. Somehow Singer just lets his characters Be; doesn't manipulate and twist them in any obvious way. They seem to evolve naturally, and are therefore believable.

I started this book with a bit of a raised eyebrow. The character, Jacob, is a Polish Jew. His village was massacred and he was kept alive but as a Slave, in another Polish Village inhabited by what Singer called "Peasants" or Polish Christians. He describes these peasants as unintelligent, idolatrous, and little better than animals in the way they live. They are constantly drunk, constantly promiscuous, filthy, diseased. He vividly pictures pork-eating on several occasions, and it seems to be a symbol of their uncleanliness.

Of course to a Jewish person, pork eating would be just that. And it seems, at least in the first part of the story, that Singer's point is that Jacob is far better than these filthy peasants. His life is in their hands, and because of their savagery, constantly in danger. This, to me, is a depiction of the "chosen people" doctrine that is so very important to the Jewish people. Jacob is set apart. In the story, he lives on a hill above and away from the village. His cattle are fatter (this recalls, to me, Old Testament stories of prosperity in God's chosen.) He struggles to live the Jewish law to the best of his ability and thus, does not become diseased, savage, and promiscuous as they are. His intelligence continues to be keen, and is even sharpened as he recalls huge portions of the Torah because of his desperation to live the law.

Things begin to shift a little when the character, Wanda, enters the story. She is unlike any of the peasants. She is refined, intelligent, and beautiful. She is loving and loyal to her father. She is in love with Jacob. He is attracted to her and sees her as Satan's temptation to him. Eventually he succumbs and hates himself (and by extension, despises her) for this.

When Jacob is freed, he goes off and decides to forget Wanda and his transgression, but he can't. For some reason he is drawn back to her. At this point the reader realizes that he loves her, though the character himself does not realize this; he is too caught up in his own world of shame, guilt, and fear for the future. One begins to see, in reading this story, that the main point may well be humanity over race or religion or practice. By Jewish law, Wanda is unclean and unable to enter Heaven and by extension, Jacob is also an outcast. But as the story continues, the reader realizes that Wanda is a saint, perhaps the most human of all the characters. She lives on love. She is not ashamed of her feelings. She is the most genuine of all the characters. Her only weakness is her dependence on Jacob, and even that is written to be a virtue-- because Love, and self-sacrifice in the face of Love, is something that our modern society values. Jacob becomes whole when he finally overcomes his emotional roadblocks and admits he loves her as well.

For me the most interesting thing about his book was Singer's description of the Jewish laws and how they were initially interpretations of the first commandments--the ten that Moses brought down. How what was once Ten laws then became a hundred, then those hundred became many hundred, until the Torah became so full of laws and commandments as to be nearly impossible to follow. Several times throughout this novel, Singer writes that the Jews in the communities that Jacob and Wanda visit only follow "one half of the Torah." He makes the statement that the rules for daily living, those involving cleanliness and the sabbath and all else, are much easier to follow than the simple rules of loving neighbor and loving God, and so these intricate, less important laws are followed to the letter while loving one's neighbor is forgotten.

In the end I think the message of the book turned out to be just this: The two great commandments. Love God, Love your Neighbor as yourself. Which is ironic, considering that this is the message of the New Testament. But I don't want to say that Singer came up with Christianity as the moral of his story, because let's face it. Christians are just this same way, a lot of the time: good at the multitude of less-significant rules, and neglectful of the ones that are truly important.


The violence in this book is graphic and disturbing. Pretty much as bad as it can get, but the story is about the massacre of the Jews in poland, so it's not gratiutous. There is also sexuality, but it is not descriptive or I guess I should say, explicit.


I'd give this book ** 1/2 out of ****, not because it's not a good story. I'm weighing classics against other classics here. I give this rating because I'm not sure how comfortable I feel about the beginning, the depiction of the Polish peasants weighed against the depiction of the Polish Jews. It feels a bit like prejudice to me, and while I think I might understand where the author is coming from (we have plenty of pro-mormon-anti-gentile literature out there as well) I can't agree with it.

4 comments:

Janell said...

Hm, despite your low rating, your commentary on this book intrigues me. I just might remember to see if they have this one at the library :)

Putz said...

just cause you can't agree with it does not mean it isna't a classic, but i am sure glad janell is now interested enough to read it cause i gave it 19 stars where ten is top

NoSurfGirl said...

Putz,
not saying it's not a classic. And that it's not a lovely book. Just that, even in the context of the story and the perspective of the characters, the comparison between the Jews and Gentiles, to me, was disturbing, and so I didn't enjoy as much as I could have. It still felt unbalanced, at the end, for me.

Remember--I'm rating classics against other classics. Which classic am I going to give just one star to? That's a question. But I'm determined to rate these purely on my own enjoyment of them and not on what I think someone else might say when they see their favorite book rated low. :P

Putz said...

i think it is dangerous to rate classics against classics, good luck though