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I first got to know about Isaac Bashevis Singer when I saw Barbara Streisand’s movie ‘Yentl’. The credits said that the movie was based on a short story by Singer. I loved the movie and so made a mental note to explore Singer’s works later. Then a while back when I was reading a short story collection I discovered that it had Singer’s short story‘A Party in Miami Beach’ in it. I liked it so much that I decided to explore more works of Singer. I was also pleasantly surprised to know that Singer wrote all his books in Yiddish and which were originally published in a Yiddish magazine and also Singer has won all the big literary prizes including the Nobel. So I got his novel ‘Enemies : A Love Story’ and a collection of his short stories sometime back. I finished reading ‘Enemies’ today. Here is what I think.

 Enemies By Isaac Bashevis Singer

‘Enemies’ is the story of a Jewish refugee in New York, Herman Broder, and his life and loves. Herman is originally from Poland, and during the Nazi regime, he loses his family – his wife and children are presumed to be killed by the Nazis. His maid Yadwiga hides him in her home and takes care of him everyday. After the war, he somehow manages to move out of Poland and takes Yadwiga with him. They end up in America and Herman marries Yadwiga. Yadwiga is from a peasant family and is illiterate and can’t read or write but she is an innocent woman and is a perfect wife to Herman. Though Herman is Jewish, the suffering that he has gone through and what he has seen and heard about, makes him lose his faith in religion. Till now the story is simple. Unfortunately for Herman, his life becomes complex from there. He falls in love with Masha who is another Jewish refugee in New York. She has been in concentration camps and has suffered a lot. She is still married, though she is separated from her husband. She knows that Herman is married to Yadwiga but she wants Herman to leave Yadwiga and marry her. Herman lives his life in two different bubbles – spending part of his time with his wife and part of his time with his lover. Then one day Herman’s life becomes even more complicated. His original wife, Tamara, who is presumed to be dead, turns up in New York and contacts him. Now Herman doesn’t know what to do – he has already complicated his life and now his past comes back and haunts him. Having two wives and a lover leads to a lot of tricky and funny situations and what happens to Herman and whether he is able to come out of it in one piece form the rest of the story.

 

I liked ‘Enemies : A Love Story’. It captures a Jewish immigrant’s life perfectly – especially the life of someone who wants to get away from the past but whose past keeps coming back and haunts him. The novel reads like one which was serialized in a magazine – which it actually was – the kind of novel which has many interesting scenes, twists and turns, many dialogues, where the prose is simple but the thoughts and ideas are insightful. One of the things I liked very much in Singer’s short story ‘A Party in Miami Beach’ was the way it portrays the Jewish community to be as flawed, as imperfect and as beautiful as the rest of humanity. He does the same thing in ‘Enemies’ too, though after a while it does a little bit repetitive. While reading the book sometimes I laughed, sometimes I got angry and at other times I got frustrated while watching Herman hurtle from one disaster to another in a bumbling way. Whenever the story reached a stage where he could make a new beginning and start life afresh, he always took the disastrous option. It was so frustrating to watch. The three women characters – Yadwiga, Masha and Tamara were well fleshed out and were very different from each other. My favourite out of the three was Yadwiga but later I developed a soft corner for Tamara as well. For some reason I didn’t really like Masha as much, though that was not her fault. There is an understated humour throughout the book and when Herman gets into one more tangle, we can’t help laughing. I think that is one of the triumphs of the story.

 

‘Enemies’ is an interesting read. It will make you laugh and cry and feel frustrated at the same time. I will look forward to reading another of Singer’s books soon.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

None of the old philosophers and thinkers could have foreseen an epoch such as this one : the helter-skelter epoch. Work in haste, eat in haste, speak in haste, even die in haste. Perhaps rushing was one of God’s attributes. Judging by the swiftness of electromagnetic flow and the momentum with which the galaxies moved outward from the center of the universe, one might conclude that God is impatient….Molecules, atoms, and electrons move with mad speed. Time itself is pressed for time in which to carry out the tasks it has taken upon itself in endless space, in infinite dimensions.

 

Flies, bees, and butterflies flew in through the open window. The flies and bees settled on some spilled sugar. A butterfly hovered over a slice of bread. It didn’t eat, but seemed to savor the odor. To Herman these were not parasites to be driven away; he saw in each of these creatures the manifestations of the eternal will to live, experience, comprehend. As the fly’s antennae stretched out toward the food, it rubbed its hind legs together. The wings of the butterfly reminded Herman of a prayer shawl. The bee hummed and buzzed and flew out again. A small ant crawled about. It had survived the cold night and was creeping across the table – but where to? It paused at a crumb, then continued on, zigzagging back and forth. It had separated itself from the anthill and now had to make out on its own.

 

A rock was sticking out of the water, jagged and pointed, covered with moss – a remnant of the Ice Age and of the glacier that had once gouged out this basin in the earth. It had withstood the rains, the snows, the frost, the heat. It was afraid of no one. It did not need redemption, it had already been redeemed.

 

The outdoors was occupied with its early morning tasks. The rising sun had executed a childish painting on the night sky – spots, smears, a mess of colors. Dew had settled on the grass and a milky-white mist hung over the lake. Three young birds perched on the branch of a tree near the bungalow, kept their soft beaks wide open while the mother bird fed them little bits of stems and worms from her beak. She flew back and forth, with the single-minded diligence of those who know their duties. The sun rose behind the lake. Flames ignited the water. A pine cone fell, ready to fructify the earth, to bring forth a new pine.

 

In Herman’s private philosophy, survival itself was based on guile. From microbe to man, life prevailed generation to generation by sneaking past the jealous powers of destruction. Just like the Tzivkever smugglers in World War I, who stuffed their boots and blouses with tobacco, secreted all manner of contraband about their bodies, and stole across borders, breaking laws and bribing officials – so did every bit of protoplasm, or conglomerate of protoplasm furtively traffic its way from epoch to epoch. It had been so when the first bacteria appeared in the slime at the ocean’s edge and would be so when the sun became a cinder and the last living creature on earth froze to death, or perished in whichever way the final biological drama dictated. Animals had accepted the precariousness of existence and the necessity for flight and stealth; only man sought certainty and instead succeeded in accomplishing his own downfall. The Jew had always managed to smuggle his way in through crime and madness. He had stolen into Canaan and into Egypt. Abraham had pretended that Sarah was his sister. The whole two thousand years of exile, beginning with Alexandria, Babylon, and Rome and ending in the ghettos of Warsaw, Lodz, and Vilna had been one great act of smuggling. The Bible, the Talmud, and the Commentaries instruct the Jew in one strategy : flee from evil, hide from danger, avoid showdowns, give the angry powers of the universe as wide a berth as possible. The Jew never looked askance at the deserter who crept into a cellar or attic while armies clashed in the streets outside.

 

The tree outside, which all winter long had stood blanketed with snow, was again adorned with glossy leaves. Herman looked at it in wonder. Each winter Herman had been convinced that the tree, which stood amid garbage and tin cans, had finally shriveled and died. The wind would snap off some of its branches. Stray dogs urinated on its trunk, which seemed to grow thinner and more gnarled with time. Neighborhood children carved their initials, hearts, and even obscenities into its bark. But when summer came, it was covered with foliage. Birds chirped in the thick growth. The tree had carried out its mission, never worrying that a saw, ax, or even one of the burning cigarette butts that Masha habitually threw out of the window might end its existence.

 

Have you read ‘Enemies’ by Isaac Bashevis Singer? What do you think about it?

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