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'The Slave,' Isaac Bashevis Singer

About the author
After studying philosophy, Rafael Broch graduated with distinction from LSE, with a masters in political theory. Tired of reading about concepts he could no longer pronounce, he worked at VERTIC, doing verification research on international arms control agreements and anti-proliferation measures. His principle interests are in Middle Eastern politics, the language of international dialogue and the ethics of political violence. He loves Malian music, cooking Thai food, and hopes to become a professional football player.

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"The Slave"
by Isaac Bashevis Singer
Farrar Straus Giroux | October 1998 | ISBN 0374506809


Recommended by Rafael Broch: On receiving his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, Isaac Bashevis Singer explained why he prefers to write in his near-obsolete mother tongue of Yiddish: "I like to write ghost stories and nothing fits a ghost better than a dying language. The dearer the language the more alive is the ghost. Ghosts love Yiddish and as far as I know, they all speak it."

I recently found my parents' 1970s edition of The Slave (1962) with its pages yellowing. It may have stood unopened on their bookshelf for perhaps two decades, but its story is set so long ago that to its characters, our respective generations would be indistinguishable.

It is a tale of immovable love in 17th century rural Poland - a world long buried under many paradigm shifts of European modernisation, and, for the Jewish community depicted, under hills of bodies massacred by Bohdan Khmelnitsky's Cossacks in 1648.

Joseph, a pious Jewish slave, and Wanda, his Polish master's exceptional daughter, are in love in circumstances even less permissive than those of Shakespeare's Verona. Their love, of course, is impossible, and ultimately Joseph is torn between his spiritual piety and his obsessive, physical passion for Wanda. So intimately does Singer acquaint you with the two lovers that their decisions appear literal and alive to the reader. One suffers as they wrestle pointlessly with their obsessions, inevitably to lose out to their zealous passion and the cruel forces of family and feudality.

Singer's tale is at once beautiful and vulgar. Its beauty comes from the purity of the local forests, the humility of Joseph's faithfulness and the depth of the protagonists' love. The contrast with the lewd, jeering peasants and absurdly prejudiced land-owners is distinctive, amusing and edifyingly sharp.

The story is also fantastical: allusions to demons, spirits and ghouls are weaved expertly with rich imagery and moist, rural descriptions of sounds, behaviour, smells and hysterias. It is just chimerical enough to be imaginary, but the story is deliberately plausible enough to have taken place.

This story and its "ghostly" characters come wonderfully alive even in its English translation. Don't we all struggle between saintly instincts and sordid compulsions, especially where passions are dominant? Many modern people are slaves to their different selves in an age where the religiously-inclined face a 'hideous schizophrenia' (to borrow a term from the Muslim thinker Sayed Qutb) when confronted by modern realities. That conflict is captured enchantingly in this beautiful and complete story.

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About the author: Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904 - 1991) was a Polish-born American novelist, journalist and short story writer. He emigrated to the US in 1935 and lived there until his death in 1991. Singer always wrote in Yiddish, and in 1964, when he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, became the only American writer who could write in a language other than English. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1978. For more detailed information on his life and career, see


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