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.

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