First published 1991
Read December 2006
Again Bashevis Singer shows himself as the master storyteller. Once started the book is hard to put down. While ‘Scum’ lacks the weight of ‘The Moskat Family’ and the beauty of ‘The Slave’ it nonetheless is an excellent read.
This time we meet an utter scoundrel, Max Barabander, who having made a fortune in Argentina sets off to Russian Poland, the land of his birth. He uses his wealth to join in the affairs of the local Jews of Warsaw, and in particular with several women around whom he creates a web of lies. This amoral man, Singer is at pains to remind us, is still a Jew and therefore has a conscience, although it never affects his behaviour, but weighs down on him. Singer, as usual, paints a stereotyped picture of Warsaw, this time in 1906, where everyone is either ‘lowlife’ or else pious; women exist for men; and key defining characteristic of every character is his (or her) identification as Jew or Gentile.
The book ends in Max Barabander planning a brutal murder of a woman who has tricked him out of his passport (though in fact he retrieves the passport non-violently). Singer seems to want to say that a man of this kind deserves a Russian jail, and it was the destiny of God to bring it about. Yet for me two things were troubling; first that a delusional character of this kind had acquired such wealth and prestige legitimately in Argentina, and second, that his insane violence just appears from nowhere.