The Slaugh­ter­man’s Daughter

By – May 17, 2021

The Slaughterman’s Daugh­ter, Israeli author Yaniv Iczkovits’s third nov­el and first to be trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish, takes place at the tail end of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry in the Pale of Set­tle­ment. The pop­u­la­tion of the town of Motal, in what is now west­ern Belarus, is shrink­ing; hus­bands are flee­ing the old way of life and run­ning off to Odessa or Kiev or New York. But the nov­el deals pri­mar­i­ly with a more unusu­al dis­ap­pear­ance: that of Fan­ny Keis­mann, a young wife and mother.

To the read­er, Fanny’s dis­ap­pear­ance is no mys­tery — she has gone to Min­sk, aid­ed by the near­ly mute Zizek Breshov, to find her sis­ter Mende’s hus­band (who has been absent for ten months with­out a word) and com­pel him to sign a writ of divorce. As the epony­mous daugh­ter, Fan­ny was taught the tech­niques of kosher slaugh­ter as a girl; since then, she has always kept a small knife strapped to her thigh, ready to bran­dish it at the first sign of dan­ger. Ear­ly in their jour­ney, this results in the deaths of three would-be rob­bers, and Fan­ny and Zizek quick­ly find them­selves in the com­pa­ny of two new allies — and on the run from Russ­ian secret police­man Piotr Novak. Novak finds the group almost imme­di­ate­ly, which seems to under­cut the tra­di­tion­al cat-and-mouse game that the read­er may expect. But then he los­es them again, sug­gest­ing that Fan­ny may be equal­ly matched with the Russ­ian colonel after all.

The Slaughterman’s Daugh­ter reads some­thing like a folk tale. It’s pep­pered with Yid­dish words and made up of dis­parate vignettes, per­haps bor­row­ing some of its picaresque style from ear­ly nov­els such as Don Quixote. Iczkovits brings togeth­er char­ac­ters with out­sized qual­i­ties com­mon to such works — the mute, the vil­lain­ess, the unre­lent­ing police offi­cer. In a more mod­ern way, though, no char­ac­ter is exact­ly what they seem. Fan­ny is described as hav­ing a lov­ing mar­riage and car­ing deeply for her chil­dren, but also shows an affin­i­ty for vio­lence, wish­ing she could tear down the bound­aries of her fate and muti­late the face of any­one who stood in her path to free­dom.” Zizek, seen in Motal as a fool, was revered by his for­mer army com­rades as The Father.” Novak has some unques­tion­ably anti­se­mit­ic atti­tudes, he also feels a surge of ener­gy — even hap­pi­ness” in the com­pa­ny of the Jew­ish towns­peo­ple of Motal; he’s more com­fort­able there than with his dis­tant wife and sons in St. Petersburg.

The end­ing of the nov­el is per­haps too neat, tying up loose ends in the span of only thir­ty or so pages. But at the same time, the fan­tas­ti­cal con­clu­sion is very much of a piece with the rest of the book — high­light­ing its struc­ture as a folk tale rather than a piece of real­ism. Unlike, say, Don Quixote, the nov­el does not seem at all con­cerned with its pro­tag­o­nists learn­ing lessons.” Even­tu­al­ly the char­ac­ters cir­cle back to Motal, bring­ing the out­side world with them, and it seems as if the seclud­ed town could be changed for­ev­er. Ulti­mate­ly, how­ev­er, there is the more pleas­ing sug­ges­tion that it may sim­ply absorb these dra­mat­ic events and go on as it always has.

Discussion Questions

Poor Mende! Mende tries to drown her­self in the Yesel­da Riv­er, which runs through the vil­lage of Motal on the west­ern edge of czarist Rus­sia, after her no-good hus­band aban­dons her and their two small chil­dren and runs off to Min­sk. Her sis­ter, Fran­ny, the daugh­ter of the title, secret­ly decides she is going to track down the errant hus­band and father and obtain a get, a Jew­ish decree of divorce, for her sis­ter. She slips out one night, leav­ing her five chil­dren in the care of her hus­band and dis­ap­prov­ing moth­er-in-law. Scan­dalous! As is her habit, she takes her knife with her, strapped to the inside of her leg. She engages a silent ex-sol­dier to row her across the riv­er. For his own rea­sons, he decides to accom­pa­ny her. The jour­ney is noth­ing like Fan­ny expects.

Writ­ten with dark humor and almost casu­al vio­lence, the sto­ry is pop­u­lat­ed with many var­ied char­ac­ters, all of them ful­ly devel­oped and nuanced. Iczkovitz explores the issues of class, anti-semi­tism, jus­tice, and female agency, as well as the com­plex­i­ty and per­il of Jew­ish life under the Russ­ian Empire.

You will read this wit­ty, wise, and pro­found­ly mov­ing adven­ture, and then you will want to read it again to ful­ly appre­ci­ate Iczkovitz’s artistry.