OF ALL THE JOYS OF YIDDISH, THE GREATEST MAY BE I. B. SINGER
OF ALL THE JOYS OF YIDDISH, THE GREATEST MAY BE I. B. SINGER
PASSIONS by Isaac Bashevls Singer
(McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., $9.25)
In the dark three-piece suits he favors, Isaac Bashevis Singer looks like a gentle white turtle. His bald head with its pale translucent skin gleams softly and disappears into a stiff shirt collar and neatly knotted tie. His movements are careful and his platform style conversational. His lectures resemble nothing so much as a middle-aged, literate love-in. Last year in Toronto’s Convocation Hall, Singer reduced the entire audience to helpless laughter by reciting for five minutes a list of Yiddish words all meaning “a poor man.” Not bad—considering at least half the audience didn’t understand Yiddish.
But for Singer cultural barriers don’t seem to exist. He writes in Yiddish about matchmakers and gravediggers in prewar Poland and the translated stories turn up on the slick pages of The New Yorker magazine. Leib Belkes, the village peddler from Radoszyce tells his tale only a page away from George Plimpton’s latest exploits. In Passions, Singer’s new book of short stories, the shtetl and condominium continue to exist side by side. Tales of Polish Jews eking out a hard living circumscribed by poverty and ritual are followed by stories of those who fled to duplexes in Brooklyn. Cottage cheese and saccharin have replaced chicory and burned-flour grits but these new Americans remain cursed by the Diaspora. They wander through clean bright apartments, grateful for electric stoves and social security, but always as tenants on a short lease. On the balconies of their Miami retirement homes and in Manhattan restaurants they sit with dybbuks and the Angel of Death. “Those who have stood at the threshold of death,” explains a woman in one story, “remain dead.”
Singer’s popularity with readers who think cheder is a brick cheese and can’t tell an aleph from a tsairai is testimony to the magic of his writing. In Singer’s hands a village in Poland can become the world. Writers who claim new experimental techniques must be developed before literature can say anything new should nip out and stock up on his books. He charts the shadowy world of good and evil with nothing more experimental than fine uncluttered prose. “While obscurity in content and style may now be the fashion,” writes Singer, “clarity remains the ambition of this writer.” Hosanna. Of course it helps when clarity comes fused with a talent for storytelling barely equaled since Tolstoy.
It’s a small matter that for some of us the ultimate power of Singer’s work is reduced by his reliance on the supernatural to tidy up loose ends. In his tales human beings scheme against the gods and one another. They construct haphazard plans out of inchoate desires and tangled motives. Then, just as the reader narrows his eyes to peer into their souls, a dybbuk pops up as the explanation for their behavior. The usual term for the artificial solution a bad playwright imposes on his story is deus ex machina—a handy god flown in from the wings. Singer comes close on occasion to ending his stories dybbuk ex machina.
But this may be a small concern. Perhaps Singer is sufficiently great not to worry about having the devil finish his stories for him. Anyway it may all be in the family. As he said recently: “I feel sometimes I am half a devil myself.” BARBARA AMIEL
Epitaph for a way of life
STRANGERS DEVOUR THE LAND by Boyce Richardson
(The Macmillan Company of Canada, $13.95) They had names like Job Bearskin, Sally Petawabano, Matthew Neeposh, William Rat and Sidney Loon and all through the winter, spring and fresh, early summer of 1973 you’d see them wandering through downtown Montreal as wide-eyed as Dorothy lost in Oz. They were men and women from another world—the Cree Indians of James Bay, witnesses in the case of Robert Kanatewat et al versus the James Bay Development Corporation, an apparently hopeless attempt to halt the vast power project that would flood their lands and end their way of life. “Never before in Canadian history had so politically powerless a group tried to stop so huge a scheme,” writes Boyce Richardson in his new book Strangers Devour The Land.
Quebec premier Robert Bourassa had unveiled the “project of the century” before a rapturous crowd in a Quebec City auditorium in April, 1971. As flocks of geese flew across a three-paneled film screen behind him he promised the damming and diversion of the major rivers flowing into James Bay would increase Canada’s power production by a full third. It was a bargain at six billion dollars, he said. The trouble was that no one thought to consult the 10,000 Cree and Inuit who live and hunt there.
Boyce Richardson had a stake in the project from the beginning because as a reporter for the Montreal Star and as a freelance writer and film maker he had slept in the tents of the Northern Cree before James Bay was even a gleam in Bourassa’s eye. His strong and moving book combines detailed descriptions of the injunction hearings that followed the Bourassa announcement with accounts of his own education in the ways of the Cree. He shows the Indians on their land as a people of marvelous grace and order who are almost beyond our ken. Theirs, he writes, is a society where man is not dominant but “a mere survivor like every other form,” where nature remains untrammeled by European man’s clinical structures. Lawyers representing the Bourassa government and the James Bay project might have taken lessons from Richardson. They spent months trying to get the Cree to admit they were more white than Indian, that they used Ski-Doos and ate Kentucky Fried Chicken. They kept asking questions the Indians had never thought worth answering. How much? How many? Where’s the boundary? What’s the address? It was, Richardson says, a dialogue of the deaf.
It is perhaps unfortunate that Strangers Devour The Land was written for an American audience—it was published by Alfred A. Knopf of New York—because it suffers from a slim, offhand description of the Quebec and Canadian context. Richardson assumes Bourassa invented the James Bay project simply to hold off the Séparatistes when in fact it was a good deal more complicated than that. Bourassa, elected on an economic platform, had taken over a province in woeful fiscal disrepair. Unemployment was sky-high. The October crisis and the Premier’s less-than-winning performance were barely over. He had to do something and James Bay was the answer. The author also ignores one of the most intriguing aspects of the whole affair—to what extent James Bay was a creation of U.S. governments and financiers. Bourassa had been boasting of his ties to the Rockefellers, and much of the electrical power—still years from being produced—has already been sold to New York state. But those questions aside, the book is an important one if only because Richardson, a New Zealander who returned home after the Indians finally settled out of court for cash and future considerations, is probably the only white man since Grey Owl to glimpse the Indians’ universe. GLEN ALLEN
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