cover image King of the Fields

King of the Fields

Isaac Bashevis Singer. Farrar Straus Giroux, $18.95 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-374-18128-4

The Nobel laureate's disappointing interpretation of primitive history, translated from the Yiddish by the author, depicts the transition of Poland from a a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural land whose new rulers ``called themselves Poles because in their language pola meant field.'' This is not, as one might expect from Singer, a fanciful excursion into the realm of anthropological magic, charms and mysticism; rather, the earthbound characters spend much of their time raping, killing, acting out sexual perversions and tending to bodily functions. Women are paradoxically portrayed: when they are not being dragged off by their hair and addressing their men as deities, they are powerful, amazonlike specimens. The novel also suffers from an incongruous time frameat least one character calls her father ``Tatele,'' a Yiddish diminutive, and a Jewish cobbler from post-Talmudic Babylon and a Christian bishop somehow find themselves among the prehistoric Poles. This encounter allows Cybula, one in a succession of kings of the fields, to engage in simplistic philosophizing about the origins of the universe, god, the vicious cycle of human cruelties and the likethat is, when he isn't busy sleeping with both his wife and her mother. (October)