Satan in Goray, Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Noonday Press, 1955, 239 pp
Welcome to a strange and foreign world. At least it was to me. I have seen this world before in books; in The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova; in the opening scenes of Away by Amy Bloom; in Amos Oz's autobiography, A Tale of Love and Darkness. But here we are much further back in history.
Into a remote village in Poland in the mid 17th century, an area where change happened so slowly it was almost imperceptible, where Jewish tradition was virtually solidified in place, comes a wild and charismatic man proclaiming the "End of Days" and the coming of the Messiah. The villagers throw law, morals and hard work to the winds and chaos ensues.
This is an ancient tale, originally written in Yiddish, where traditional Judaism meets mystical thought. The superstition that lies just beneath most religious philosophy breaks through, revealing all manner of strange characters and forces.
The translator's note in the front of the edition I read interprets Singer's message to be that a lack of solid faith opens the door to Satan and evil, that the story is a warning against heresy. That may have been the author's intention, but what he made manifest here is how thin the veneer of civilization truly is. A haunting read.
(Satan in Goray is available in paperback by special order at Once Upon A Time Bookstore, as are the other three books mentioned.)