It’s time for another look at a piece of weird fiction being discussed over at the Deep Ones group at LibraryThing. Brett Taylor in Issue 408 of the Fortean Times speculates this story may be based on a dream by Singer and notes that Singer was keenly interested in the occult.
Review: “The Enemy”, Isaac Bashevis Singer, trans. Friedl Wyler and Herbert Lottman, 1980.
The story opens with our narrator in a New York City public library reading one of those sort of occult books Singer himself read: Phantasms of the Living. (In fact, it’s a real book by the authors Singer lists — Edmund Gurney, Frederic W. H. Myers, and Frank Podmore. I suspect Singer probably read it himself.)
Anyway, the narrator tells us he really hasn’t been keeping track of all the Yiddish writers and journalists who came to the city from Poland since the Second World War began. He doesn’t know which of his one-time colleagues are alive and which are dead.
He is interrupted in his reading.
“A little man with a high forehead and graying black hair looked at me through horn-rimmed glasses, his eyes slanted like those of a Chinese.
“He smiled, showing long yellow teeth. He had drawn cheeks, a short nose, a long upper lip. He wore a crumpled shirt and a tie that dangled from his collar like a ribbon. His smile expressed the sly satisfaction of a once-close friend who is aware that he has not been recognized—obviously, he enjoyed my confusion. In fact, I remembered the face but could not connect it with any name.”
The man gives his name: Chaikin. He worked on a newspaper back in Warsaw. He and the narrator had been good friends though Chaikin was 20 years older. “You thought I was dead, didn’t you? It wouldn’t have taken much,” says Chaikin. He suggests they go out for coffee then asks what the narrator is reading and is surprised he already knows English.
When the topic of the book is revealed, Chaikin says the narrator is still interested in “this hocus-pocus”.
In a café, chainsmoking Chaikin mentions he’s been in Rio de Janeiro for the last few years and that he always thought the narrator’s stories, filled with superstition and miracles, were just a “literary mannerism”. Now, though, he’s not so sure, and he tells the tale of his journey on a ship from Argentina.
He travelled tourist class, sharing a room with a Greek man and two Italians. They ignore him completely.
And then Chaikin tells his main story which is, essentially, a very individual pogrom against him.
He gets a table to himself in the dining room. The giant of a waiter doesn’t take his order, tries to serve him pork chops, or otherwise ignores him. At first Chaikin thinks this is straight up anti-Semitism, but the waiter cheerfully serves many people who are obviously Jewish.
This puts Chaikin in a bad mood, and he holds himself apart from the other Jews on board. Going to the ship’s library, he asks for some books in the locked case. The librarian ignores him.
Each day of the twelve day journey is worse than the day before. He almost gives up eating and subsists on just the fruit he takes off tables. But, when the waiter finds out he’s taking food to his cabin, he tears an orange out of Chaikin’s hand. Disgusted with his roommates who he has to crawl over for nocturnal visits to the lavatory, Chaikin takes to sleeping on deck.
One night, Chaikin goes to the dining room to find a costume ball going on, and there’s a foolscap at his usual table which the waiter forces on his head. When Chaikin takes it off, the waiter screams at him in Spanish and waves a fist at him. For dinner, the waiter gives Chaikin dry bread and sour wine.
“But then I would have given a year of my life to know why this vicious character was persecuting me. I hoped someone would see how miserably I was being treated, but no one around me seemed to care. It even appeared to me that my immediate neighbors—even the Jews—were laughing at me. You know how the brain works in such situations.”
Chaikin sleeps in his cabin that night. His roommates are gone, he finds, when he goes to the lavatory. The corridors are covered in vomit.
The deck is clean though, he finds, when he goes up for some fresh air.
And then the waiter attacks him.
Chaikin is a man who has avoided conflict of any sort all his life. But he fights for his life, fearing he is going to be tossed overboard. But, battling the waiter for ten or fifteen minutes, he finds the waiter’s body oddly light, rubbery, and spongy. Eventually, Chaikin tosses him overboard.
The narrator has a ready explanation. Chaikin fought “an astral body”.
Chaikin finishes his story. When he goes to lunch in the dining room, he finds another waiter. Chaikin finds he can’t understand him, but the waiter still manages to deliver the items he points to on the menu. From then on, that was the watier Chaikin always had. He never saw the old waiter on the ship again.
Chaikin then wants to know more about astral bodies.
“There is a body within our body: it has the forms and the limbs of our material body but it is of a spiritual substance, a kind of transition between the corporeal and the ghostly—an ethereal being with powers that are above the physical and physiological laws as we know them.”
Chaikin isn’t buying that. It was all a fantasy of his. Besides, Chaikin saw the waiter again – in a bar in New York City – “unless this too was a phantom”.
The story ends with Chaikin pondering, “What he had against me, I’ll never know.”
We don’t really know why the waiter hates Chaikin. Perhaps it is a manifestation of self-loathing. Chaikin says he always avoided confrontation before battling the waiter. Yet he sees the waiter again, so it doesn’t seem some psychological defect that was cured nor is there any real reason given why Chaikin should be self-loathing.
The story seems a curious, Jewish-tinged dialogue (i.e. kvetching on Chaikin’s part) between a dogged, unthinking skeptic and a believer.