Rare is the short-story writer who in a mere handful of pages is able to craft something unforgettable. Still rarer the writer who can conjure that sort of staying power with a narrative that concerns itself with intangibles – hints and suppositions, hearsay and superstition – and that strikes the reader not so much for its insight into character or its plot, but for its mood, which moves over you like a weather front, unsettling your equilibrium, tingling your nerve endings and leaving behind a stubborn and troubling mist.

This is what it feels like to read Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Accuser and the Accused. The story, published in 1988, towards the end of Singer’s life, runs to just seven pages, and yet it possesses a lingering quality you’d normally associate with a novel. It plays on your mind. Gets under your skin.

Its narrator, never identified by name, is a Yiddish writer living in New York sometime in the 1930s or 40s. Not an insignificant writer, he preens himself on the fact that his stories have been translated into Tamil. You get the sense that he relishes his international reach – both his direct writerly influence, but also the vicarious, globe-trotting thrill he siphons off his friendships with other itinerant writers.

The story concerns two such writers, both ‘Yiddishists’ like the narrator himself. One of them, Schikl Gorlitz, is steeped in spiritualism: ‘religion, philosophy, and contemplation were the very essence of his existence’. He has translated the Bhagavad Gita and some classic texts from the cabala, and he regularly makes long journeys to India.

The other writer, whom the narrator met in Buenos Aries, and whom he calls David Karbinsky, is a travel writer who documents the lives of the Indian tribes he encounters, as well as those of fellow Jews he meets in unlikely corners of the globe. How either of these men manage to fund their intellectual pursuits is a mystery to the narrator.

At the root of his wanderlust, the narrator suspects, Karbinsky was searching for a territory for Jews. ‘I really think that every Yiddishist traveller is possessed by a territory dybbuk’, he says. This is same demon of Zionism that led Jews to petition the Sultan of Turkey for permission to settle in Palestine, and that saw Theodore Herzl’s proprietorial gaze stray to Africa, where he located promising territory in Uganda. Herzl, the narrator confides, was a Ugandist to the end of his days, leading some Zionists to believe he’d betrayed the cause.

Now the actual substance of the story, the titular accusation, is a flimsy, gauzy thing, mounted on the basis of a bare suspicion. While travelling in Peru, David Karbinsky attends a Catholic procession, where hundreds of priests and nuns file down the streets carrying crosses and icons of the saints, and singing religious liturgies. Among their number, Karbinsky is suddenly convinced that he has spotted none other than Schikl Gorlitz in the guise of a priest. Karbinsky calls his name and the priest momentarily turns, but then he quickly resumes his march.

As soon as Karbinsky returns to Buenos Aries, he publically denounces Gorlitz. He hasn’t the slightest doubt about the real identity of the priest, but the Yiddish journalists in Argentina are unpersuaded. People can resemble one another, they say. However Karbinsky won’t be put off. He makes enquiries. He finds out that Gorlitz has visited South America and that he has translated some religious poetry from Spanish to Yiddish.

This ‘evidence’ is, of course, purely coincidental, and even Gorlitz pipes up to say that it’s a far cry between visiting a country and taking on the mantle of a native priest. Neither man performs the obvious, rational checks (consulting passports, finding witnesses) that would settle the matter once and for all.

Gorlitz returns to his solitary translation work with his reputation in ruins. He dies a couple of years later, according to some, as the direct result of this ordeal. Karbinsky passes away a few years later, his motives for accusing Gorlitz remaining forever obscure.

In a devilish way, I thought this was a terrific reading to take to the group, since it fails – willfully, spectacularly! – to deliver the easy satisfaction that we expect from a story.

Rather than affording the reader a direct hit, the narcotic drug that is Singer’s narrative swirls around the mind’s chambers like the heady fumes from a narghile. Nothing becomes known for certain, no dilemma is resolved; the truth simply dissipates like smoke.

The foggy impression you’re left with is that something happened, though you cannot be sure what. One member of the reading group wasn’t even convinced we’d just read a story. But that is part of Singer’s intention. His narrator is meant to floor you with his credibleness.

But what is Singer’s game in offering up a subtle allegory of displacement? His characters are classic ‘wandering Jews’ – present everywhere, yet nowhere at home. They drift from through Argentina and Peru, India and Uganda, Spain and Palestine, being intellectual and erudite. But their identities are fragile. An accusation with no evidence to support it is enough to unravel them. Is it because they intuit their own essential weakness that the Yiddishists stick together? Is it because they cannot uniformly commit to a Yiddishist territory that they need the common ground of language, faith and timeless tradition?

Singer demonstrates a keen awareness of the pitfalls of existing inside a tight community group. You cannot escape its searchlight. You can travel to Peru and still be found out by other Yiddishts.  You are trapped in a suffocating mono-culture, even as you aspire to educate yourself in Indian mysticism, or become expert in the lives of the Indian tribes of the Americas.

Singer’s characters are at once over-determined and shifty. They’ll give you the slip, shape-shifting before your eyes. But they will go to their graves claimed or spurned by the community that defines them.

One little story detail sums this all up very nicely. Not long after the narrator first meets Karbinsky, Karbinsky gifts him the skin of a huge snake skin, which he stows in his clothes closet and then forgets. But when the skin start shedding too many scales, the narrator throws it out.  ‘I was never a collector’, he explains, ‘and certainly not of snake skins.’

The message perhaps is that identities are like snake skins. You should wear them and shed them. Abandon an old self and embrace a new.

Who knows this better than a wandering Jew?

Advertisements