(creator: Kenneth Wishnia)
|Benyamin Ben-Akiva is, at the start of the book, the under shammes (assistant sexton) at the Klaus Shul (synagogue), the smallest shul in the crammed Prague ghetto in 1592. He had previously lived in Slonim in Poland, and had studied in Kracow but "was never mystical enough to suit the mystics, or rational enough to suit the rationalists, or compliant enough to become a follower of any of the established schools of thought."
When his wife had left him he had followed her to Prague in the hope of re-establishing relations with her. He is described as “a tall Jew with a curly black beard", although he has noticed "a few prematurely grey hairs." He has "huge and paw like hands" and is very conscious of what he calls his "crude mannerisms". But he is courageous and determined, always ready to speak up for himself and he proves to be a shrewd and very well-informed investigator, well able to put his detailed knowledge of the Torah and the work of the scribes to good use. No wonder he ends up as a rabbi. He is particularly expert at talking himself out of difficult situations. He narrates part of the story, the rest being told in the third person.
Kenneth (J A) Wishnia was born in Hanover, New Hampshire. After several years working in Scotland, France and Ecuador and elsewhere, doing everything from carpentry to opera singing, he was awarded a B.A. in literature and film from Brown University and, later on, a Ph.D. in comparative literature from SUNY Stony Brook. He teaches composition, literature and creative writing at Suffolk Community College on Long Island, where he is an Associate Professor of English and lives with his wife and their two children. He had published five crime novels before The Fifth Servant (reviewed below), and his short stories have appeared in various magazines.
The Fifth Servant (2010)
I enjoyed too the way that Benyamin, after examining the blood stains “planted myself with my legs apart and announced in my most authoritative call-to-prayer voice, 'The man who left the girl's body here was about six feet tall, and strong enough to lift ninety pounds with one arm. He wore eleven-inch long boots with pointed metal toes, one of which was slightly dented at the left instep.' "
Later, when “a man tugging on a couple of stubborn sheep mocked us by asking, 'Tell me, Jews, if you're so smart, what is this sheep saying?', I listened to the animal's drawn-out bl bleating and said, “Help, I'm being pulled along by an idiot."
At other times the humor seems more obviously Jewish, as when a Christian girl asks him, “How do you Jews keep track of all six hundred and thirteen commandments?"
You cannot help sympathising even with such unpleasant characters as Bishop Stempfel when the doctor subjects him to " a complete examination of the digestive tract" using a painful probe consisting of “a hollow metal tube, with a flat projection at one end with a hole cut in it for viewing the exposed tissue". He eventually treats him by holding “the withered finger of a long dead saint" on the bishop's wound. But our sympathy soon disappears when he avidly joins in the terrible torture of a mother and daughter whom he has decided must be witches.
The only part that really lacks conviction is the creation of a Golem (actually a large simple-minded man on stilts) and the way marauding Christians flee from him. But the book is very well researched and has been written with considerable empathy for the wretched and persecuted, both Jews and Christians. And the snippets from the Torah and other religious teachings are both relevant and interesting. The only really superfluous part is the inclusion at the end of the paperback version of one of the two short stories that the author has written as follow-ups to the novel. Otherwise it all makes an engrossing and original read, and is to be recommended.
|The book is handsomely designed although there is one oddity: the first few words of each section are printed in light grey and upper case, as shown below, making them just that much more difficult to read. I found this an annoying distraction.|