The more I think about this novel, the more I can't wrap my mind around it. Certainly it's a very powerful work, and quite remarkable, but in a way, it's also rather bizarre.
The text is written in a curious epic fashion, weaving back and forth across generations and centuries without blinking an eye, chronicling the upheaval of a community of Jews living in a Polish village. The main character, Meir Ezofowicz, represents the sweeping change encroaching upon the Jewish communities in Poland - modernity. He stands out in a world that clings to tradition and insularity. At the same time, he doesn't actually have the goods to back up his position - he has only a rudimentary secular education, but a strong yearning to learn more. At the same time, he's deeply invested in Talmudism. So he's the figurehead of the text's drive to advocate, not assimilation, but co-habitation. He's willing to sacrifice some aspects of Jewish life, but nonetheless maintains a strong connection to some rituals, and generally to the community at large. The text, of course, provides a foil to his character by depicting a largely secularized, very well educated Jewish family who turn their back on tradition, and generally behave like jerks.
The text is notable in that it's written by a Polish Gentile and strongly advocates multiculturalism and Jewish Emancipation at a time of rising nationalism and intolerance (1878). The author delves into Jewish life, depicting the Polish noblemen in a not-so-positive light -albeit not entirely negative. There's some attempt to understand how these tensions between the two groups come into being, and a refusal to actually caricature any side - they may seem like jerks, but she makes a point of giving them redeeming traits as well. Also notable is her way of bringing to light the heterogenaeity of the Jewish communities in Poland, and particularly the class tensions existing within them.
But what's really striking about the work is its dramatic denouement, which occurs in the final pages (in case it's not obvious, I'm about to give away the conclusion. SPOILER.) There's this whole build-up to the reading of the pages of one man's will, which has been passed on through generations and is supposed to bring about some kind of miracle. And while these pages are quite stirring, they actually entice the Jewish community to mob violence, rather than mass conversion. But then, Meir is ex-communicated, departs in shame... and the crowds stand up for him. And the Rabbi has this grand epiphany that perhaps the "spirit of the age" is advocating tolerance rather than evil. But Meir is banished anyhow, and sets off into the world to find this grand education, etc. Fair enough. He's going to go out in the world, drink from the well of wisdom, and, we suspect, return to raise this backwards village into the light. But what happens as he's leaving town? He discovers that his lady love, who is all set to patiently wait for him as he roams the world bettering himself, has been murdered. My. God. Talk about ending on a downer. And for what? I mean, the major conversion in the work is NOT caused by the reading of the pages, but rather, by the ex-communication of Meir. Because the people simply can't support the humiliation of a guy who has done so many great things for them. And the ex-communication isn't even caused by the reading of the pages, but rather, by a whole host of other reasons, some of which have been present from the outset. And the conversion isn't even complete. There's no real resolution to the text. Just this brutal, horrific ending, that actually serves no clear purpose. Aside from being seriously intense and tragic. So why? WHY?
I'm baffled. A very interesting work. And actually quite an enjoyable read, worth checking out.