Yaniv Iczkovits’ third novel and first in translation (translation by Orr Scharf, also his first), The Slaughterman Daughter, is historical fiction but also something of a homage to the great Yiddish writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Set in the Pale of the Settlement (modern day Poland) in 1894, the book builds on the traditions and types of characters found in the stories of the time but gives them more than a bit of a modern spin on them. Leavened with humour and larger than life characters, Iczkovits manages to shine a light on both some of the antecedents of modern day antisemitism but also their current expression.
Mende Speisman’s husband has abandoned her and run away to the urban centre of Minsk, leaving her living and eking out a living in the small town of Motal with her in-laws and her two children. Until one day Mende finally snaps. Her sister Fanny, who lives in an even smaller village nearby with her husband and five children, decides to make matters right, to travel to Minsk and force Mende’s no-good husband to agree to a divorce. Without telling anyone her plan she sets off. Helped by Zizek, a local returned soldier with a complicated past, she heads towards Minsk. But when they are accosted by bandits, the slaughtering skills that Fanny learnt from her father as a child come to the fore and soon the two are soon wanted for murder. After seeking help from one of Zizek’s old army comrades, things get more complicated still.
The Slaughterman’s Daughter is full of the types of village-dwelling characters that peopled the work of famous Yiddish writers like Sholom Aleichem (best known for the stories that became The Fiddler on the Roof). A carping mother-in-law, a hopeless wannabe cantor, a clueless rabbi and a panoply of local shopkeepers. But Iczkovits also ranges much more widely than this, as the story draws in the Russian secret police and the Czar’s army (this area was under the control of Russia at this point in history).
Iczkovits juggles a range of characters and styles through the story. There is almost a crime/thriller element here as Fanny and her companions go on the run and the forces of the secret police close in. There is the local village politics put into overdrive by missing spouses and potential for new matches. But there is also a long discursion recounting Zizek’s past, and the vicissitudes of military life in an army that treats its soldiers as dispensable. Iszcovits also dips into the work of the secret police, which is as it turns out is helping to foment dissent so they can crack down on it and thus show the superiority of the current system. And underlying this all is the relationship between the Jews of the Pale and both the Russians and their Polish neighbours, and the undercurrent of mistrust and anti-semitism that informed all of their dealings with each other.
The Slaughterman’s Daughter is historical fiction that tries to capture the sense of the writing of the time in which it is set. But it does so with a very modern sensibility. The main characters are complex and fully rounded and even the minor players are not the caricatures they could have been. There is slapstick comedy cheek by jowl with confronting, sometimes arbitrary violence, and a slightly manic plot that constantly threatens to (but never quite does) spin out of control.