Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer

This amazing book by an author I regret never having read before, has a similar feel to Orhan Pamuk's books. The struggle with faith, of believing but not knowing whether belief lead to anything. Set in Poland in the seventeenth century at a time when war and massacres were routine, the book is a beautiful story about a man who becomes a slave but even after achieving freedom, realizes he can never be free again. He continues to believe but his belief is shaken by all that he sees around him.

Ceaselessly he prayed for death; he had even contemplated self-destruction. But now that mood had passed, and he had become inured to living among strangers, distant from his home, doing hard labour. It was difficult to believe in God's mercy when murderers buried children alive.

In Jacob's case the normal order of things had been reversed. It was God who spoke in simplest language while evil overflowed with learned quotations. How long did one live in this world? How long was one young? Was it worth while to destroy this existence and the one that would follow for a few moments of pleasure?

Yesterday everything had been bright; now it was gray. Distances had shrunk; the skies had collapsed like the canvas of a tent; the tangible had lost substance. If so much could vanish from the physical eye, how much more could elude the spirit.

The explanation he had given that free will could not exist without evil nor mercy without sorrow now sounded too pat, indeed almost blasphemous. Did the Creator require the assistance of Cossacks to reveal his nature? Was this a sufficient cause to bury infants alive? Even if these souls rose to the most splendid mansion and were given the finest rewards, would that cancel out the agony and horror? Through forgetfulness, he had also been guilty of murder.

But Jacob had no peace. Everywhere he heard people asserting things that their eyes denied. Piety was the cloak for envy and avarice. They had learned nothing from their ordeal; rather suffering had pushed them lower.

But he realized with astonishment, what was so new for him was stale for everyone else. As for the Almighty, He maintained his usual silence. Jacob saw that must follow God's example, seal his lips, and forget the fool within, with his fruitless questions.

As a boy he pitied the watchman in the cemetery whose life had been passed near the cleansing house, but now the whole of Poland had become one vast cemetery. The people around him accommodated themselves to this, but he found it impossible to come to terms with. The best he could do was stop thinking and desiring. He was determined to question no longer. How could one conceivably justify the torments of another?

One day seated alone in the study house, Jacob said to God, "I have no doubt that you are the Almighty and that whatever you do is for the best, but it is impossible for me to obey the commandment, Thou Shalt Love Thy God. No, I cannot, Father, not in this life."

Yes, the day Jacob had left Josefov for the village where he had been a slave for five years, he had picked up a burden which became heavier with the passage of time. His years of enforced slavery had been succeeded by a slavery that would last as long as he lived.

Jacob's body died, but he was already so busy greeting those who had come back to meet him that he did not look back. His dark cabin with his rags and refuse was left behind on the ship. The voyagers would clean it out, those who must still continue to journey on the stormy seas. He, Jacob, had arrived.

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