Book review: The Slaughterman's Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits
The Slaughterman's Daughter - Yaniv Iczkovits
Cultural diversity and social integration might be something that we now see as desirable and beneficial, but in 1899 or thereabouts in the town of Motal, in Grodno County (western Belarus), an isolated town surrounded by black bogs and separated from the rest of the world by the Yaselda River, the small Jewish community tend to keep their business to themselves and distrust outsiders. And perhaps that's for the best for all concerned. Certainly that's what Colonel Piotr Novak, the chief of the Okhrana, the secret police of Grodno and Minsk, comes to realise when he makes the mistake of investigating and questioning the townsfolk about some fugitives from the town who have been causing havoc in the region.
The cause of such consternation, murder and mayhem in the region comes from the unlikely source of runaway housewife Fanny Keismann. The small Jewish community of Motal have traditionally had a problem with errant husbands, judging by the number of imploring articles from abandoned women and their families in the local Hamagid newspaper looking for information on their husbands' whereabouts (which in most cases is suspected to be in the brothels of Minsk). Fanny Keismann is however an exception, the wife of cheesemaker Natan-Berl with five children of her own, she has taken off scandalously or perhaps coincidentally at the same time as the brooding silent ferryman Zizek Breshov.
Fanny's mission is a little different however. She's gone on her sister's behalf, as Mende Speismann's husband Zvi-Meir has done a flit and it's rumoured he's been seen in the big city Minsk. Mende claims to be unconcerned - she isn't the first abandoned women and won't be the last - even going as far as writing to the Hamagid newspaper as a Happy and Contented Woman rather than play the role of the typical Cry of a Miserable Woman. She has been behaving strangely however, spending what little money she has saved wildly on her birthday and then throwing herself into the Yaselda, so she's perhaps not as happy and contented as she claims.
From such humble origins The Slaughterman's Daughter turns into an epic adventure where the culture of Jewish family life and culture around this period comes across as a blend of Isaac Bashevik Singer's family epics of Jewish culture with a Salman Rushdie grand historical and cultural spin. It's rich in cultural heritage and eccentrically characterised, Fanny's Journey filled with adventure and danger, as she and Zizek soon encounter bandits on the road not far into their journey. It's as well Fanny was trained to be a female 'shochet' (a kosher animalslaughterer) and has the reputation of being a 'wilde chayeh' (a wild animal). But who would have imagined that a simple journey to find an errant husband would attract the attentions of the secret police, mobilise half the Russian army and send shockwaves through the military command and the aristocracy?
Colonel Novak, the chief of the secret police is angry by the outrageous murderous activities of these fugitives and sees it almost as a personal affront to his authority. His investigation sends agents in a widespread manhunt across the region, while Novak himself goes deep undercover to try and understand the nature of this bizarre race of people living under his nose who are suspicious, refuse to integrate and whose language and ways are unfathomable. And likely to remain so, for no matter how much Novak tries to make sense of it, the more he finds out about the ways of the 'zyd', the less he seems to know.
That's one of many delights, intricacies and observations about life and the absurdity of it in Yaniv Iczkovits's The Slaughterman's Daughter. It encompasses everything, from the nature of the Jewish people and how gentiles relate to them, it lampoons the ways of scholars and academics, anarchists and communists, drunkards and madmen (plenty of them), the Russian military and nobility, the common people and the state. Lampooned, but at the same time it's wonderfully insightful, Iczkovits revealing some wonderful character detail and a strong sense of culture and period. Every character has a backstory, and not just a backstory but a near legend.
Written in Hebrew and clearly brilliantly translated by Orr Scharf, The Slaughterman's Daughter itself has something of the character of a legend, a bona fide masterpiece that is a sheer delight, shot through with black humour and rich prose, it's outrageously funny and at the same time filled with thoughtful observations.