Monday, March 29, 2010

"The King of the Fields" by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Singer in his novel The King of the Fields, written in 1988, just three years before his death, examines religions (Christian, pagan, Jewish), myth, male-female relationships, sex, politics, and man, through a purported history of pre-medieval Poland. The novel is basically an existential examination of man and his beliefs positioned in a fairy-tale world. In many ways it shares themes with the Book of Job and possesses slipstream qualities similar to those in William Golding's The Inheritors and Jack London's Before Adam. But even this comparison is not accurate. Perhaps, a better comparison would be to Kafka's The Castle, Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund, Bergman's The Virgin Spring, or Camus' The Plague. All of these books are philosophic texts examining belief and philosophy. Each of these books illustrates how a novelist can write a philosophic text without sacrificing the essential qualities and pleasures inherent in a novel.

The story is set during the emergence of Poland approximately three or four centuries after the death of Christ, a time when the hunter-gatherers are beginning to cultivate the fields and missionaries from Rome are arriving in the Northern woods to convert the pagans to Christianity. In his created world of the forests near the Vistula, Singer demonstrates dramatically the interaction and absurdities of religion as exercised by untutored, unlettered men, struggling for supremacy and survival in a state of nature. Like Hobbes, Singer shows man in this fantastic world as brutish and deadly; with his survival depending upon strength, intelligence, guile, and luck.

Iron men ravage the land, destroying, murdering and raping; however, our protagonist, Cybula, although a skilled hunter, is not a hero or a warrior. Instead, he seems to be a precursor to the Singer nebbish. He assumes control when fate demands it but he is never comfortable with the mantle. Women control his life, although he seems to have an inordinate success with them. He is not comfortable with the change from hunter-gatherer to sower, farmer, villager, although he quickly sees its advantages.

The action begins when a group of Poles take control of a tribe of Lesniks; hunter-gatherers living near the Zakopane mountains. The Poles led by Krol Rudy, the Red King, descend on the Lesniks like wolves on sheep. They murder the men and rape the women. Some of the Lesniks, led by Cybula, flee to the forests and the mountains but most of the survivors--women and children--fall under the control of the Poles. Eventually, Krol Rudy makes peace with the Lesniks because he needs workers to harvest his wheat. He, then, makes Cybula his head-man and marries his daughter to tie the Lesniks and the Poles together through marriage.

On one level Singer uses this story to study the transformation of the Lesniks from hunter-gatherers to town dwellers and farmers. On another level he follows the progression of man's beliefs in the gods. First Ben Dosa, a Jew, arrives in the village, and he brings the message of the one God. Later, a priest arrives and he preaches Christ and accuses Ben Dosa of killing God.

Suddenly, religious prejudice arises and hatred of the other fills the villagers with rage. The women attack a Mongol woman for her slanted eyes and they beat Ben Dosa for trying to protect her. Within the context of the novel, Singer works in the theme of the scape-goat and hatred of the Jew, as other.

We quickly realize that Singer is using the historical novel to comment on the present, on the way the world is now. Although, the Jew, Ben Dosa, is a decent and moral man, Cybula is the protagonist and the one who carries Singer's ultimate message. Cybula worships only one God and that God is death. Singer's conclusion is:life is short and brutish and the only tangible, living God that man can expect to speak or reveal himself is death. For Cybula there are moments of passion and happiness but these moments are short and rare. There is always another Krol Rudy who wishes to take control and dominate.

Ultimately, the novel is existential in theme. Cybula is a loner, who leaves the village and lives in exile in the woods with his young wife, Kora, and waits for death, which he expects to arrive shortly. Ben Dosa seems to experience a bit of happiness in Rome with his people but even his happiness is overshadowed by superstition and emanations of fate.

Although the themes of the novel are dark and man's future bleak, it is an amazing book. Singer translated it from the Yiddish and the prose is precise and lyrical. He carefully describes the society and its inhabitants. Each character is delineated and articulated. And even though it is a complete fabrication, more a fairy-tale, than a realistic rendition of a historical period, it is so well-wrought that you believe in it and its characters.

Singer's novels, like the novels of Kafka, always seem to have a quality of otherness to them. When the villagers talk about the witch god, Baba Yaga, you expect her to appear. Mystery and magic seem to lurk around the edges, although the novel is meant to be realistic. It is this magical realism that raises the book in my esteem.

1 comment:

  1. Great book and great review!
    Alex Esterson