Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, by Peter Manseau, is a novel that is quite an accomplishment in many aspects, but especially in Manseau’s ability to convey the adversities and horrors of the Russian pograms at the turn of the twentieth century.
The primary character, Itsik Malpesh was born in Kishinev during the the Russian pogroms, to a well off family. The events of his birth, as told to him by his mother, are what has shaped his life, and shaped his perception on love. This novel is Itsik’s story, although it reads like a memoir that could be based on an actual person. That is due to the fact that the format includes a novel-within-the-novel, which is part of Manseau’s writing brilliance and creative edge.
During Itsik’s birth, a four-year old girl named Sasha Bimko, a butcher’s daughter, happened to be present. She was being protected by Itsik’s family. Family legend has it that when four male attackers burst through the bedroom door while Itsik’s mother was giving birth, she raised her fist, stood between them and Itsik’s mother, which in turned shamed the soldiers. Itsik’s poems reflect the love he has for Sasha, and the fact that he feels that they will meet due to bashert, a meeting foreordained by destiny. As far as he was concerned she was his soul mate, his eventual meant-to-be spouse.
During that time period, Kishinev’s population was 50% Jewish, and the other half was composed of Russians and Moldovans. The Malpesh family was living quite well compared to other Jews in the city. His father was a manager in a factory that made goose down beds, etc. He invented the factory’s feather plucking device. The factory sold goose down beds not only in Kishinev, but throughout Russia, and even the world.
Itsik,s calling is poetry, and he has considered himself a poet since he was a young boy. He gave his poems, written in Yiddish, to a translator, to be translated into English. The translator is not Jewish. He works at a warehouse that is storing Yiddish books, books of a dying language, a language that is becoming lost within the modern world of the mid 1990s. He reads and speaks Yiddish. He is not Jewish, but has been assumed to be so, and does not reveal the truth about himself in order to try to win the affections of a co-worker named Clara.
Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter has an unusual format, with chapters alternating between “Translator’s Notes”, and Malpesh’s notebooks, “The Memoirs of Itsik Malpesh”. Malpesh’s notebooks details his life story, his love for Sasha, and the people and events that played a major role in his life’s quest towards his bashert, his destiny. He believes that his poems are a masterpiece, and his arrogance shines through the pages. His determination to publish his works, and his steadfastness in keeping the memory of Sasha alive, is the only thing that motivates him. From shoveling goose feathers and excrement from the floor of the down factory, to his learning to read Russian through the tutoring of a fellow yeshiva student, the novel takes Malpesh to Odessa, takes him penniless to New York, and eventually to Baltimore, and with each step, Sasha is at his side, through his poetry.
Manseau has given the reader much to ponder as far as bashert/destiny is concerned. What about the ramifications of believing in bashert or destiny? It isn’t always the romantic vision that one replays in their mind. It can imprison individuals, can hold them back from moving forward with their lives, unmotivated and not choosing to exercise their free will. Their obsession and focus is on that one theory or one individual, preventing them from other interactions that could become satisfactory and meaningful. What about the events and tragedies that can lead up to that moment when a person meets their soul mate, their bashert or destiny? Does it then signify that it is fine for others to possibly die or be involved in horrific situations all in the name of bashert? I asked myself these questions while reading the book. I asked myself many other questions, such as what is the meaning and the depth of language as far as our identities are concerned?
Manseau is a master with words (both Yiddish and English), and the pages often hold poetic imagery that fills the reader’s senses through his vivid word paintings. His visuals and descriptions of what it was like to be a Jewish immigrant in America during the early twentieth century are incredible, and are often overwhelming in their harshness. The heightened images also include some humor, and the book isn’t entirely depressing or dark. The Eastern European Jewish immigrant and their experiences are portrayed with extreme illumination, and nothing is left to the imagination. We experience Malpesh’s frustrations, his heartbreaks, the tragedies, etc., through his eyes, and through the compelling and creative imagery of Manseau.
In my opinon, Peter Manseau has written a classic novel, and one that will be considered such for decades to come. He touches on the very core elements of life, such as ethics, responsibility, language, and our roots. Both happiness and sadness fill the pages. Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter is masterfully written, and the pages evoke an extremely strong sense of time and place, immigration and assimilation, love and longing, and language and identity. I highly recommend it to everyone.
January 30, 2012 – 6 Sh’vat, 5772