It is one of those books that I should have read when I was younger. I have had it for years and for years it has always been pushed down my TBR. Finally I read the Polish edition I own.
The book is a story of Yasha Mazur, a Jewish performer/magician living in the late 19th century Russian ruled part of Poland. His life is organized around his travels to bigger cities (mostly Lublin and Warsaw) to perform and make money. At home his wife Esther faithfully waits for his returns. Yasha, unlike his wife, is not a very devout Jew, he does not really observe religious holidays, apart from the biggest ones, he has affairs with his assistant Magda, Zeftel from nearby village and also in Warsaw with the widow Emilia. His lifestyle clearly requires some juggling skills, both literally and metaphorically.
We meet Yasha as he is getting ready to go on another tour to Warsaw. He is keen to meet with Emilia, he is in love with her and plans to abandon his wife and move with Emilia and her daughter Helena to Italy. On his way he visits Zeftel, who asks him to take her with him to Warsaw, he refuses and moves on to pick up Magda from her home. They arrive to Warsaw where he meets with Emilia again.
As it is a 19th century society the matter of social origin, class and religion do matter. Yasha does not fit in any way: he is a Jew, he comes from a smaller town, he has no education (though he is an avid reader and learned a lot on his own), he is a magician, he basically has no social standing, despite the money he earns. Also the money is not enough to afford him his new dream life with Emilia.
Zeftel follows Yasha to Warsaw and ends up living with a pimp and later having an affair with him. Magda becomes jealous of all the other women in Yasha’s life. On that one fateful night all of Yasha’s life unravels, his decisions destroy the lives of the women involved. On a spur of a moment he decides to rob Emilia’s neighbour to get the money he needs to move to Italy with her. This does not go according to plan either.
It is a story about morality, about right and wrong and its consequences. Yasha is a good man, yet he leads an irresponsible and selfish life, with no awareness of the impact of his decisions on others. He does not wish anyone harm, but he still causes it with his every move during those fateful days, it is as if his luck has left him and the time has come to pay. In the epilogue we find out that he decided to pay in an exaggerated and extreme way. A decision with which my younger self may sympathize, but which my more cynical self now found melodramatic and hysterical.
It is a well written, thoughtful book, about morality, society, rejection and guilt, I am simply too old for it. The world in this book is simple, it is not good but it is simple and by now I know it is not and no big gesture will change that, it may only cause more damage.