The Avenging of Mende Speismann By the hand of Her Sister Fanny.
“The revolution must be created in order for it to be crushed…” [Colonel Novak of the Okhrana]
Now, if you’re sitting comfortably I’ll begin – The Slaughterman’s Daughter is a rich and enchanting adventure novel, the kind of story telling that we all crave from time to time and that you so rarely see in a serious novel these days. Iczkovits has written a grand sweeping epic, a tale you can get lost in, even enraptured by, it has charm and wit and heft. For me The Slaughterman’s Daughter was an antidote to the blues inducing effect of a couple of cold dark rainy winter nights. This leviathan of a book is a tale that mixes folklore and imaginative flights of fancy with a insightful glimpse of the history of czarist Russia. It’s the story of a Jewish community, of belonging, loyalty, revenge and familial love in brutal times set against the backdrop of pograms, fermenting revolution, and approaching war. This novel although brief in timespan is a semi-chronicle of its times – the late nineteenth century. It is both flamboyant and exuberant, compassionate and emotionally complex, heart warming and poignant. The human spirit triumphs over all – missing husbands, bandits, spies, and wars. This is a story that refuses to adhere to natural boundaries, that bifurcates, meanders and merges at a confluence as the mood takes it. This is a matryoshka doll of a story, tales within tales within tales. An historical romp that plays fast and loose with fact but not with that essential emotional truth, a beguiling distortion of the past that brings the Jewish experience of the Russian empire into focus. Surprises abound, hardships are endured, love blossoms and sacrifices are freely made.
It all begins with: ‘The cry of a miserable woman’, a plea from a deserted wife for information on her missing husband published in Hamagid, 8th February, 1894. Three years married and the man upped and vanished. Initially there were reports of sightings in Minsk, and maybe Kiev but then nothing more. There are many stories like this in the paper recently.
As Mende Speismann reads her heart goes out to the woman, (a sense of sisterhood perhaps?), but then she wonders why the woman didn’t hire a gentile detective to track her husband down. In truth Mende can’t help feelings a small pleasure at the woman’s plight. Her own husband walked out ten months ago, leaving her with his parents and the two girls. Zvi-Meir’s parents could have thrown her out on the street, they never liked their own son anyway, he betrayed their hopes for his future. Now with no husbands’s wages Mende and the girls clean floors and char in the richer part of town, naturally, for a pittance. In one house Mende gets an old copy of the Hamagid and reads the adverts from women lamenting their absent husband. One day a week Mende’s sister Fanny Keismann comes to Motal from the village of Upiravah to take her niece Mirl’s place so that the girl can attend Hebrew and arithmetic classes. Mende isn’t grateful for this, she is scornful of Fanny’s life with Natan-Berl in a provincial village, she is resentful of her sisters help, stung by her own poverty and need. For her 26th birthday Fanny and Mirl cover Mende’s work so that she can take the day off and enjoy herself relaxing. They suggest she take Zizek Breshov’s boat across the river to the forest to pick blueberries. Mende doesn’t want to do that, she heads to the market, she takes her savings with her, looking for just one little treat, to misspend a single rouble. But something overtakes her, she buys herself beef, four roubles worth, enough for a family to feast on, she sneaks away to eat it. Now, possessed by some strange urge Mende puts an ad in the Hamagid announcing she is happy to be alone, husband less, she buys a dress, and shoes. By the time she comes to her senses there are no refunds to be had, she only has four roubles left, that is her entire fortune. Then she remembers Zizek’s boat. Zizek who used to be Yoshke Berkowitz before he was conscripted to the imperial army at twelve years old, he was singled out and surrendered by the elders to protected their own children. Now he is a Russian, Zizek Breshov, a goyim, who rows a boat and lives separate from the community. Mende climbs in his boat and in despair panics and jumps in the water half way across the river. She survives, gossip has it that:
“He pushed to take revenge and saved to make amends, this is what happens to a man torn between the Jewish and Christian faiths.” [the Rabbi of Zizek]
Mende recovers, the things she bought are delivered and the family assume it to be a sudden outburst of compassion in the community to deliver such gifts. Fanny knows her sister is unhappy, she tells Mende she is going away for a month, maybe a bit longer, not to worry. Hamagid reports:
“A woman went out in the second hour after midnight and has not returned since…”
And so begins Fanny’s remarkable adventure. Why has Fanny left her family; husband, five children and concerned mother-in-law? Did Zizek, who went missing at the same time go with her? Why does she come to the attention of colonel Piotr Novak of the Okhrana, the feared secret police? Fortunately Fanny was always the wild one, she learned killing from her father Meir-Anschil Schechter’s trade of slaughtering animals, she has a skill that may stand her in good stead on the road. Fanny meets soldiers, bandits, rapists, anti-Semites, and policemen, she will be arrested, escape and form the strangest alliances. But will she find Svi-Meir, Mende’s husband before the secret policeman catches up with her and her travelling companions?
The story of Fanny’s sojourn is interspersed with that of her parents, Meir-Anschil and Malke, of her grand parents and of Zizek/Yoshke, all utterly gripping and adding richly to the novel. The Slaughterman’s Daughter is alive with Jewish cultural references, with faux self-deprecation and all manner of ironic, satirical and word play Jewish humour and colourful metaphors that ring true:
“The empire is a corpulent giantess who cannot see below her stomach or bend down to lace her own boots: she will never know what goes on between the creases of her flab.”
Big, brash and beautiful. A bravura translation from the Hebrew by Orr Scharf.
Paul Burke 5/4*
The Slaughterman’s Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits
9780857058270 Quercus MacLehose Hardback February 2020