One does not expect to find Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer following the footsteps of Jean Auel into the primeval fictional mist of pre-recorded history.
Yet, Singer intrepidly plunges into the darkest pre-Christian era in "The King of the Fields," his first novel in five years and a remarkable performance.It will come as no surprise to learn that Singer handily outclasses Auel where literary prowess counts - style, theme, structure, brevity, atmosphere, psychological penetration and sheer storytelling brio.
But to give Auel her due, she sells books by the millions because of her uncanny capacity to seem viscerally embroiled in her primitive characters.
At first blush, no such charge can be leveled against a man of Singer's urbanity. Yet the riveting essence of Singer's new novel lies in its extraordinary identification with a cast of squat savages struggling to survive in a brutish world.
The novel's strength derives from Singer's innate naivete, simplicity and purity of vision. It is this magical innocence that has animated Singer's stories and novels set in the 20th century, and it is, if anything, even more resplendent and appropriate here.
"The story begins - when?" Singer writes in the book's first sentence. "The calendar of the Romans was not yet known in Poland."
What is known in the valley of the Vistula River is that armed marauders led by Krol (King) Rudy have driven the pastoral tribesmen led by Cybula into the mountains, far from the harvests they expected to tide them through the winter and far from the huts, women and children on whom they depend for warmth and succor.
But Rudy's carousing men show little interest in agriculture, let alone in how they will get by once the plundered provisions are gone. It is clearly time for that first great civilizing step: A deal.
Cybula, against the wishes of most of his followers, will bring his people back to the village to join with the invaders to till the fields once again, hoping to stave off joint starvation. Organization will be required to survive, since Krol Rudy's men represent a parasite class and one capable of impetuous violence when crossed or even frustrated.
Singer's primitive Poland is no biblical land of plenty. Indeed, the book exudes the perpetual stench of urine, excrement and sweat of brutal labor and sodden drunkenness, albeit in prose.
It is all here, man's implacable harshness and his unquenchable striving for a better way, illustrated by characters struggling forward five steps and regressing backward four, each of them torn by the conflicting elements of their individual nature, and all told in a prose as simple and mesmerizing as the Book of Genesis.
Few readers will escape the conviction that civilization began as Singer describes it, or have any doubts that its less than glorious contemporary outcome can be explained by the contending and often contradictory traits that have been passed along by Cybula and his fellows.
For "The King of the Fields" is, of course, in part a parable about the creation of modern Europe, with its notions of linguistic and cultural unity leading to civil order and ultimately the establishment of nations whose barbaric origins were never entirely suppressed, least of all in the Poland from which Singer escaped shortly before the Nazi conquest, the better to tell his stories to a grateful world.