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The Slave, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Farrar Straus and Cudahy, 1962, 311 pp (translated from the Yiddish by the author and Cecil Hemley)
Summary from Goodreads: Four years after the Chmielnicki massacres of the seventeenth century, Jacob, a slave and cowherd in a Polish village high in the mountains, falls in love with Wanda, his master's daughter. Even after he is ransomed, he finds he can't live without her, and the two escape together to a distant Jewish community. Racked by his consciousness of sin in taking a Gentile wife and by the difficulties of concealing her identity, Jacob nonetheless stands firm as the violence of the era threatens to destroy the ill-fated couple.
I have not yet read anything by I B Singer I did not love. The Slave is no exception. Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978 and always wrote in Yiddish until his death in 1991, in Surfside, FL.
After all my reading this year about slavery in America, I come to this reminder that slavery is as old an institution as prostitution. Both seem to be inherent in the human story.
The Slave is an epic in 311 pages. Jacob was a learned and pious Jew, son of wealthy parents, who found himself a slave to a farmer in a remote mountain village. His birthplace, Josefov, was a Polish town that lay in the path of Ukrainian Cossacks in the 17th century. The ensuing massacres had cleared the town of Jews. Jacob fled, thinking his parents, wife and children dead, then fell into the hands of robbers who sold him into slavery.
Though he desperately strove to stay true to his faith, Jacob began to love the farmer's daughter. Wanda was a step above her environment, a practically prehistoric milieu of pagan superstition, tooth and claw existence, and rural poverty. But she was a Gentile and therefore forbidden. Her passion for him finally overcame his religious scruples and they planned to escape.
Of course, that plan fell through on the first attempt. Jacob's life from then on is one of perils and his search for redemption, taking him all the way to Israel as part of the early Zionist movement, at last reuniting with Wanda, and on to his final days where he finds peace and wisdom.
Besides being a beautiful love story, the novel is also a contemplation of the place of religion in human society including the contradiction that it condemns believers who do not follow its commandments while it honors the phenomenon that spirituality can lift us above our animal nature. The result is a timeless tale.
How interesting that Singer published a novel called The Slave just as the Civil Rights Movement was catching fire in America, his adopted country since 1935.