The King of the Fields
by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Broadway Paperbacks, New York, 2010
[Challenge # 5: A translation.]
This is my next-to-last Challenge read for the year, and I want to reiterate, it’s been fun. Many of the books I’ve read are from the stash I collected over the years, and each has an interesting story behind its acquisition. Rarely are they purchased in a bookstore because they look interesting. Well, the Genghis Khan one was, but that one also carries a story of a trip up to the Washington state city of Bellingham and its popular bookstore, Village Books, during the time I was finalizing a divorce from an abusive husband, and lunch after the bookstore visit in a fish and chips restaurant based out of a renovated double decker London bus. My other Challenge books have similar stories. Some came from thrift stores, some yard sales or little free libraries. King of the Fields came from a free pile in front of a rental house, this anonymous person having decided to ditch their belongings rather than move them to a new abode. Since I’ve enjoyed Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories in the past, I grabbed the book, and it nicely fulfilled the translation challenge because it was originally published in Yiddish, as all his fiction was.
This short novel is set in the early Middle Ages, amongst a tribe living by hunting and fishing in the forest who are forced to become “civilized” when a band of drunk, rowdy outcast lords take over their land and do as conquerors do. Though not apparent at first, it was set in Poland, in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains towards the southeast corner of the country. This was of interest to me, as some ancestors of mine came from that area. The clash of cultures becomes less than noble as pillage, murder, guerilla warfare, and the like occurs. Nevertheless, it was very readable despite the author’s pessimistic view of human nature. I certainly admired the brevity and humor of Singer’s tone, its matter-of-factness.
What I didn’t like was its treatment of women, which I hadn’t remembered from the short stories of his that I’d read. Kosaka, the main character, is presented as an Everyman and something of a schlemiel, yet despite his unexceptional nature he gains the devotion of not one but two women, a mother-daughter pair who adhere to virgin-whore dynamics. The hot-blooded mother, Kora, is the only character in the book who accomplishes anything useful as a leader, yet she is lambasted as a liar and harlot at the end of the book, while her daughter, Yagonda, after being kidnapped and raped by Kosaka at age 11 winds up giving him total devotion as well, with the added plus of being an Iron Age manic pixie dream girl. She remains small, thin, dark, and is always running off to the forest to be at one with nature; her love is presented as “purer” than Kora’s, because she is unsullied by civilization. The other female characters were screeching harpies, superstitious gossipers, or faithless turncoats; not that the male ones were much better, most of them prone to being drunken louts, but the feeling I got from the author was that if the women only had some self-discipline, the men would follow suit.
There’s was also some rape I wasn’t comfortable with, not because of its explicitness, but because it was offered by the author so casually, without considering it from the woman’s point of view. I wanted to like the book more than I actually did.
I expected the story to lead somewhere, to a conclusion good or bad, but it just… ended. In a cheat to the reader. Won’t reveal all of it, but it was along the lines of “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.” Oh Isaac, Isaac, you could have done better!