MacLehose Press published The Slaughterman’s Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits on 20 February 2020.
Today I’m pleased to share an interview between Yaniv and his editor at MacLehose, Elise Williams.
Hello everyone! I’m delighted to be talking to Yaniv Iczkovits about his debut novel in English translation: The Slaughterman’s Daughter, translated from the Hebrew by Orr Scharf.
The Slaughterman’s Daughter is a vibrant historical adventure, set in the Russian Empire at the end of the 19th century, and revolving around a young Jewish woman’s quest to track down her missing brother-in-law and save her sister from destitution and despair. Crammed with stories, voices, encounters and drama, it is an epic and totally engrossing read. There is so much to say about this wonderful novel, so without further ado, here comes my first question for Yaniv . . .
The action of The Slaughterman’s Daughter takes place in an area of the Russian Empire known as the Pale of Settlement. Can you tell us a little about this area, and what life was like for the people who lived there?
At that time, Jewish people were a minority group in the Russian population, and they had to learn how to live in the heart of a Christian nation during the emergence of nationalist movements. In many places, Jewish people were confined and subject to strict regulations, and from time to time they suffered pogroms. They couldn’t leave the Pale of Settlement. They couldn’t own land and be farmers. And they were limited to their trades. It’s funny how antisemites accused Jewish people of being unproductive and only focused on trade, when in reality they could hardly be productive and were forced to focus on trading. The truth is that Jewish people had to find ways to survive with these restrictions, so much so that when Nicholas I of Russia was given a report about the Jewish people of Russia, his officials told him that although Jewish people only formed 15% of the population, it felt more like 85%.
The most respected status of a Jewish man was determined first and foremost by his wisdom and knowledge of the Bible. Money and business were only secondary concerns. Jewish people wished to maintain their conservative way of life, partly because they experienced a great deal of antisemitism from the locals, but also because their faith resisted marriages with people from other religions. When Europe started to change and open up in the 1870’s, Jewish people were exposed to new and exciting ideas. More and more Jewish men wanted to leave the Shtetls and forsake their traditions. They converted to Christianity or moved to the big cities. Other Jewish people wanted to acquire formal education, which eventually meant that they left the Shtetls and never came back. Others were excited about Communism and joined the Bund or other revolutionary movements. Others became fascinated with the prospect of Zionism and dreamed of immigrating to Palestine. And most Jewish people heard about Di Golden Medina, and did everything they could to get visas to America. By the end of the 19th century it became clear that the traditional way of life of Jewish people in the Shtetls was about to change in a profound manner. This is why I wanted the story to begin with one of these men who leaves his wife and children, but in contrast to what usually happened in these cases, I wanted someone to go after him and chase him down.
Your heroine, Fanny Keismann, has a very unusual profession for a woman at that time. What prompted you to give her this particular skill, and why is she so attracted to this work as a child?
From the beginning, I knew that this someone had to be a woman. I was tired of male protagonists. This patriarchal world takes all kind of forms. It sets up rules for what is important and what is trivial, what is serious and what is banal, which people make appropriate leaders and which do not. And I was in a time in my life when I really felt that something else was needed here. So, I decided that my protagonist would be a woman, but, from a realistic point of view, the idea of a woman to wandering through Eastern Europe at that time, was rather far-fetched. So, I needed her to have the ability to fight back. Guns were out of the question because Jewish women didn’t serve in the army or have any access to weapons. A knife was a possibility, but how would she know how to handle a knife? Then came the idea of her being the daughter of a slaughterman. And then I had to build her whole character around that. When I reached the moment when she needed to use the knife, I came up with the idea that not only would she use it to kill people, but also that she would use it in the traditional Jewish way.
The original Hebrew title of the book translates as Tikkun after Midnight. Can you explain the meaning of ‘Tikkun’, and particularly how it relates to the decisions and actions taken by Fanny in this story?
Tikkun in the Jewish religion and tradition is perhaps the highest purpose of life. It means “to make amends” between yourself and God, yourself and other people, yourself and the world. Fanny wants to make Tikkun. She wants to make “Tikkun Olam”, which basically means to bring the world back to its senses. She wants to make amends to her sister’s world, which was lost after her husband left her. And she wants to make amends with herself, because she always knew that she couldn’t simply live a traditional Jewish life, giving birth to more and more children and running the household.
Wanting to make the world right is something that motivates many of the characters, however they decide to do it, and whether they are aware of doing it or not. Even Piotr Novak, you could argue. What inspired the idea for his character?
It’s funny that you should ask about Novak because, for me, his character is as important as Fanny’s. I think there are several reasons for this. Firstly, from a personal perspective, I feel that his way of coming to understand the disgraceful nature of his service in the secret police, especially after his past serving as a colonel in the cavalry, matches the feelings I had while serving as a combatant officer. I wanted to serve in an elite unit because of a certain sense of devotion and a strong belief in the national ethos and myth. But the reality of the day-to-day routine of serving within a civilian population was very far from what I had imagined. Secondly, being a huge fan of 19th century literature, both Yiddish and Russian, I always felt that Russian writers depict Jews with stereotypes, and Yiddish writers do the same with gentiles. So, I wanted to create a real Russian character, a commander-in-chief, someone the reader could really identify with and, more importantly, someone who would experience a dramatic change in his prejudiced perception of Jews. So, Novak is experiencing an inner Tikkun, a much richer understanding of his life and how he came to be so morally bankrupt, but – without giving away any spoilers – he also realises he has a chance to do Tikkun Olam. Thirdly, I think I love literature so much because, ultimately, it tells us that everything is personal. Everything. We talk about ideas, ideologies, politics, and necessity. But as Kafka wrote in The Trial: “One does not have to believe everything is true, one only has to believe it is necessary.” So, whenever people tell you that something is necessary, literature tells you to look for the personal. This is why I love Piotr Novak: he cannot believe that a simple issue between a husband and a wife in a small Jewish Shtetl can stir up the whole empire – but it does. We always look for the big explanations, but the truth is that history is made by human beings.
And finally: how much did your background in philosophy influence your career as a novelist – or do you think of them as very distinct disciplines?
Well, at the beginning of my academic career, I really thought I could do both, but then writing completely took over. It came to a point where I was being paid for doing academic research about Frege but finding myself in the library with books about the Shtetls. All the same, I don’t regret my academic journey. On the contrary, I feel it has proven to be vital in my writing. My area of academic expertise is in the philosophy of language, and I feel that as a writer I’ve acquired a certain understanding of how language operates, and which tools you can use in different contexts and intentions. So, when I wrote The Slaughterman’s Daughter, obviously language became a major challenge. I didn’t want to imitate the great writers of the 19th century, and I didn’t want to write in a contemporary fashion. So I needed to invent a rhythm that took the old and melted it with the new. And I had to do it for each context and character. Sometimes I didn’t write for four months because I couldn’t find the correct dialect for a certain character, or I didn’t have the right tools to express it.
It seems those four-month pauses were worth it in the end because a great joy of editing the translation of The Slaughterman’s Daughter has been seeing how easily Orr Scharf follows all the nuances and shifts in voices and stories throughout the novel, and appreciating how all these threads of history and adventure are woven into this rich tapestry of narrative and ideas. The result has been a delight to publish from start to finish!
My thanks to Yaniv for this interview, and if we’ve done enough to pique your interest, The Slaughterman’s Daughter is out in all good bookshops now.
About the book
The townsfolk of Motal, a small town in the Pale of Settlement where nothing extraordinary ever happens, are shocked when Fanny Keismann – devoted wife, mother of five and celebrated cheese farmer – leaves her home at two hours past midnight and vanishes into the night.
True, the husbands of Motal have been vanishing for years, but a wife and mother? Whoever heard of such a thing. What on earth possessed her?
Could it have anything to do with Fanny’s missing brother-in-law, who left her sister almost a year ago and ran away to Minsk, abandoning his family to destitution and despair?
Or could Fanny have been lured away by Zizek Breshov, the mysterious ferryman on the Yaselda river, who, in a strange twist of events, seems to have disappeared on the same night?
Surely there can be no link between Fanny and the peculiar roadside murder on the way to Telekhany, which has left Colonel Piotr Novak, head of the Russian secret police, scratching his head. Surely that could have nothing to do with Fanny Keismann, whatever her past, whatever her reputation as a wilde chayeh, a wild beast . . .
About the author
Yaniv Iczkovits is an award-winning author and was formerly a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Tel Aviv. His previous works include Pulse (2007), Adam and Sophie (2009) and Wittgenstein’s Ethical Thought, based on his academic work, in 2012. In 2002, he was an inaugural signatory of the “combatants’ letter”, in which hundreds of Israeli soldiers affirmed their refusal to fight in the occupied territories, and he spent a month in military prison as a result. The Slaughterman’s Daughter is his third novel and won the Ramat Gan Prize and the Agnon Prize in 2015, the first time the prize had been awarded in ten years. It was also shortlisted for the Sapir Prize. Yaniv Iczkovits previously held a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University and lives with his family in Tel Aviv.