17.5.14

Isaac Bashevis Singer - The King of the Fields

Rating 5.5

This review will be a hard one to write for two reasons.

First of all, I'm a great fan of Isaac Bashevis Singer to the point I own some of his books in both Italian and English translation. Secondly, I'm not prudish, puritan, Victorian or whatsoever, but still it hurts me to find plenty of gratuitous, nasty and badly written sex in a novel where it's not supposed to be the core of the story.

Alas, as much as I like I.B Singer, I cannot be that biased to give this late novel of his more than a weak pass mark.
True, Singer wrote 'The King of the Fields' when he was already 84 year old which is remarkable, but was writing this novel necessary? I'd daresay not.

Let's start by saying that even though Singer spent 56 years in the US, he kept writing books in Yiddish explaining his choice by stating that English couldn't compete with the multilayered richness of his native language. Fair enough, but another reason why the Nobel Prize winning author didn't switch to English is that he was aware that he didn't master that language very well. That's why all the major works by Singer aren't translated into English by himself, but by close friends and relatives of his with the author's supervision. I've always found Singer's choice to stick to the Yiddish language in writing and to leave the English translations to people with a better knowledge of the subtleties of that language quite honest and fitting to a man who kept a modesty and a sobriety unknown to other Nobel laureates.
However, as far as I remember, this is the only novel by I.B. Singer that he himself translated from its original Yiddish to English and unfortunately it shows. The language you'll find in this novel is miles away from the sophisticated and engaging narrative of the best works by his author.

The chief problem with 'The King of the Fields' is that it reads like a young adult novel in terms of writing style and that didn't work for me. I mean, there are plenty of dull dialogues and let-down descriptions. And yet, unlike a historical novel for young adults, history is surprisingly blurry here so much that it's never clear what's the period Singer is writing about.
On the one hand, we have uncouth heathen hunters living in caves like Cro-Magnon men, on the other hand there is a description of an unnamed town ('Miasto' means town in Polish) which is portrayed like it might have looked like in the 14th-15th century.  We have an anachronistic Jewish character estabilishing a sort of cheder school teaching how to read to folks living in a hamlet where people walk barefoot and don't have a clue on how to farm the fields. We have Polish 'kings' looking and behaving like tribal chiefs and German merchants bartering weapons for furs while peasant townfolks buy meat by using groszen coins. Mmmh, all this sounds rather messy. Doesn't it?

What's worse, Singer enjoyed peppering these pages with some of the most disgusting sex scenes I've ever read. I mean something that would make even accomplished mysoginists such as Philip Roth or Michel Houellebecq blush.
I understand, I do understand that I.B. Singer wanted to take the reader into those obscure times where shattered tribes of pagan hunters ruled over nowadays Poland so that you couldn't expect fair treatment to women as well as equal opportunities. Nevertheless, there are so many rapes here and so many women falling in love with their rapists calling them 'my god' that I guess how Singer's point on sexual savagery is more than accomplished after the first 50 pages.

Together with rapes, incest, cheeky threesomes, pregnant 13 year old girls, choreographic coitus interruptus techniques and clumsy hints at homosexuality (in pre-medieval Poland!), I couldn't bear some of the hyper-sexualized characters. Let's take the awful and cheesy submissive statements of one of the main characters here - Kora - who is countlessly called a 'miserable whore' and a 'harlot' such as:
'I want to wash your feet and drink the water after ward' (sic!)  or
'I enjoyed other men as long as I could go from them to you'.

And what do you think of the following dialogue:
'He spat at you and you kissed him?'
'Yes'
'It gave you pleasure?'
'Great pleasure'.
Marquis de Sade in pre-medieval Poland? But of course!

I don't know what old Isaac Bashevis was thinking about when he wrote this, but he certainly was into a perverted satyrish period of his long life.
There are some redeeming and even interesting moments in 'The King of the Fields', but I'm afraid they cannot balance all the needless and overexposed sexual frenzy you get all over the place.
I appreciate that a very old Isaac Bashevis Singer wished to detach himself from his usual milieu writing a story which probably meant to celebrate - in its own way - the birth of the Polish nation, but I cannot deny that this is the worst book by Singer I've ever read.

4.5.14

Jacek Hugo-Bader - White Fever (Biała gorączka)

Rating 8.0

They do love reportages in Poland.

In fact, one of the things I like the most since I moved to Krakow is that any given bookshop here includes a properly named 'reportaż' section. Which is something unheard of in Italy and still rare in the UK.
Depending on the size and on the quality of the Polish bookshop, the reportage section might host only a handful of titles (most likely belonging to the excellent 'Czarne' serie) on a single shelf or cover an entire wall from top to bottom.

Now put yourselves in my shoes.
Just like Polish readers do, I love reportages. However, not being able to grasp written Polish more complicated than what your average 5 year old Pole reads, it's quite frustrating to stare in awe at those scores of potentially fantastic but unfathomable books most of them written by authors I revere. Not to mention that sometimes the top shelf of the reportage section is simply too high to be reached from my glorious 1.70 metre tall.

I'll tell you a funny one here. Once I asked for help to a bookseller assistant in order to check the price of a copy of 'Dukla' by Andrzej Stasiuk placed on a topshelf by saying 'Jestem niktim' which - as far as my memory went - was supposed to mean 'I am short' but actually sounds like 'I am nobody'. 'Short' is translated with 'niski'. She smiled, shook her head a bit, stretched her right arm and handed me the aforementioned book. As it cost too much for my budget, I left 'Dukla' behind but placing it on the penultimate shelf from the top as it dawned on me that 'niktim' didn't exactly mean 'short'. Blush. 

If there's a Polish Booksellers Association out there, please pay attention: diminutive people read as much as tall ones do and have their same rights to help themselves in your esteemed bookshops!

'Bloody hell! - Hugo-Bader says - This book is not only about Siberia' 
Anyways, back to the review.
They know how to write reportages in Poland and two generations of Polish journalists have been publishing excellent books spanning the whole world. I guess that part of the merit for the shining health of contemporary Polish reportage journalism goes to success gained by Ryszard Kapuscinski, but the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza played an important role as well.

Jacek Hugo-Bader the author of White Fever works for GW just like fellow journalists such as Mariusz Sczygiel, Pawel Smolenski, Joanna Bator and many others. Now the good thing of Gazeta Wyborcza is that it's a rare example of a bestselling national newspaper that manages to keep its quality standards high. And employing great reporters giving them the chance to follow their own stories whenever they can helps in making the newspaper an interesting and widely appreciated one.

White Fever (Biała gorączka) is introduced to the international readers in its English translation as 'a journey to the frozen heart of Siberia', but it's much more than that.
Jacek Hugo-Bader (JHB) will forgive me to state that his crazy driving trip through Siberia from Moscow to Vladivostok on a sturdy customised Lazhik jeep made in the USSR serves as an eye-catcher for those in the UK and the US who are unfamiliar with his foreign sounding and hyphened name. There is indeed very little of Jacek stubbornly driving his Lazhik to and through desolate Siberia in White Fever, to be precise these travelogue bits can be found from page 5 to 31 and from page 297 to 320. That's it.

Thanks to Tony Wheeler I discovered that the one above is the 'Lazhik jeep' JHB drove from Moscow to Vladivostok. Apparently this no frills car is known all over Russia as UAZ Hunter
You might wonder what did Jacek write from page 32 to 296 and the answer is: plenty of good stuff.
With the pretext of waiting for his second-hand Lazhik to be given an extreme 'pimp my gear' treatment by Muscovite mechanics, say, Jacek Hugo-Bader delves into the very little known Russian hippy community delivering a poignant and hilarious dictionary of their jargon, history, personal stories and beliefs. And this is only the first tasty filling you can find inbetween the 'Siberian driving trip' slices of bread in the surprising flavourful sandwich made up by the Polish journalist.

If all that you know about Russian music doesn't get any further than the raucous chansonnier Vladimir Vysotsky or the thorny (for anoter Vladimir) balaclava-disguised Pussy Riots, Jacek here fills the gaps. Russian hip-hoppers, gangsta-rappers, anarcho-punks, Christian Orthodox rockers, neo Nazi metalheads: you name them and Hugo-Bader interviews them all in his own fashion.

Which brings us straight to a chief point: JHB's writing style.
Unlike other contemporary Polish journalists I read and appreciated so far (chiefly Szczygiel, Stasiuk and Gorecki), Jacek Hugo-Bader puts much of himself in his interviews. I mean, he expresses his own opinions in a colourful no-nonsense way that might leave you surprised. I don't know how much of this attitude is genuine and how much is fabricated on editing but I'd daresay JHB is a honest guy.

Writing about an extremely delicate and emotionally touching subject like AIDS and the millions of Russian people infected by the HIV virus due to lack of information, appalling hygienical standards, drug abuse and what calling libertine sexual behaviors might be an euphemism, JHB doesn't beat around the bush.
Interviewing 'Miss HIV' Svetlana chosen as the spokeperson for scores of Russian sieropositive youngsters, Hugo-Bader poses just the right questions but is not afraid to include personal remarks such as 'What arrogant bastards', 'Bloody hell!' or scolding Svetlana on her 'proudly telling' him about the 'sexual blitzkrieg' of her HIV-infected husband: 'Sveta, for God's sake!'.
Now all this might sound out of place or even patronising but - as surprising as it might look - it works in drawing a portrait of Sveta as the actual person she is thus making the interview utterly engaging.

According to Hugo-Bader and his Geiger counter, this seemingly placid lake next to the Kazakh town of Semipalatinsk is the most radioactive place on Earth
What follows are mesmerizing pages revolving around the semi-forgotten area of current Kazakhstan where Soviets detonated around 300 atomic bombs both underground and overground between the from 1947 to 1963 keeping the local populace there as guinea pigs. As you might wonder, this is another hard topic to write about involving poor, unemployed and desperate people who have been falling ill and dying by infinite variations of devastating cancer for fifty years. Hugo-Bader is simply masterful here and this 'The Study Aids Store' is the best reportage I read in a long while.

Far less convincing is the interview with Mikhail Kalashnikov the inventor of the infamous AK-47, the assault automatic rifle that killed millions in the hands of armies and terrorists alike since 1949. I had already read an interview with the same guy (who recently died) written by...David Remnick, I guess, but JHB by clearly showing his distaste for the - certainly distasteful - Russian engineer doesn't do a good job. True, at the time of the interview Mr Kalashnikov was a senile, full of himself jerk and Hugo-Bader lost his temper with his reticence, but I still believe something better could have been written.

The half-failure of Kalashnikov is more than balanced by the fantastic reportage entitled A small corner of Heaven  where JHB visits the community founded by one of the three Russian 'living Christs'. In their remote corner of Siberia, Vissarion and his thousands of acolytes have built up a self-sufficient religious community founded on the sometimes crazy (don't piss in the woods! It's forbidden) sometimes reasonable teachings of a former militiaman who discovered to be no other than Jesus Christ.  Again, this reportage brought to my mind bits I had read before involving Mormons, Evangelicals and so called New Age communities (Tobias Jones, was that you?), but Hugo-Bader makes it pitch perfect.

Meet Vissarion, the Russian answer to Jesus Christ Superstar!
To conclude with, just before the second slice of Transiberian bread there's the reportage providing the title to the whole book: White Fever. I liked it and cared about the ill-fated Evenks people, but to be completely honest with you, I've found it a bit long-winded thus losing some of my interest at the end. The story of these Siberian herders who became relentless alcoholics self-destroying themselves in the process due to the low tolerance of alcohol within their organism is incredibly sad and moving, but the stratagem of the countdown used by JHB is ultimately too excruciating to bear.

Which brings me to mind that this review lasted for too long and it's high time to finish it.

Let me tell you this: if I were you, I would go to the nearest bookshop, look for White Fever, buy it and read it. If you live in Poland that is incredibly easy to do. Just hope that your copy of Biała gorączka is not on the topshelf. But I guess you're likely to be taller than me or at least with a better command of the Polish language.