Occasionally my attention has strayed and I lost the thread of what was going on, but it always picked up again and stayed glued for a long while to this whodunit. As a crime novel with pseudo-Yiddishkeit, this is a great read. What its meaning or message is eludes me, but perhaps that too is part of the whodunit.
The plot revolves around detective Meyer Landsman's unrelenting, unauthorized drive to resolve the murder of Mendel Shpilman (a.k.a. Emanuel Lasker) at their common home, the Hotel Zamenhof. The Hotel Zamenhof, born of high ideals, is a seedy, degenerated dive. Perhaps this contrast was intended by Chabon? Landsman is an unlikely hero, and Shpilman a dodgy candidate for the role for which he was groomed. The Jewish settlement of the Sitka district of Alaska, temporarily reserved for Jewish refugees with its own governing structure but now facing Reversion to Alaskan control, is now endangered. The Jews are not only unsettled by this prospect, but their entire existence is askew, uncomfortable, damaged and wounded, far remote from ideals or utopian visions, compromised not only by their difficult circumstances but by their internal politics and their relations with both the indigenous people and the American government. The worst among the Jews are the ultra-orthodox, who wield illegitimate political power and harbor a gangster element among them. And the manipulation of their religious fanaticism could prove to be the world's undoing.
Perhaps I am not the only one tempted to draw parallels between this alternate history and real history. But I have no real clue as to Chabon's intent.
There is a history of struggle between the Jews and the Tlingit, with multiethnic offspring and antagonistic friendships in the mix, as one would expect. Here is an extract from one colorful exchange illustrating the situation (p. 283):
[....] "Johnny the Jew," he says. "Well, well. Beanie and all. Clearly you haven't had any difficulties lately saying the holy blessing over the Filipino donut."There's more to this priceless dialogue. Dick also has more to say about his boundless suspicion of Jews (285).
"Fuck you, Dick, you anti-Semitic midget."
"Fuck you, Johnny, and your chickenshit insinuations about my integrity as a police officer."
In his rich but rusty Tlingit, Berko expresses a wish to one day see Dick lying dead and shoeless in the snow.
"Go shit in the ocean," Dick says in flawless Yiddish.
They step toward each other, and the large man takes the small one into his embrace. [....]
There is more to the linguistic mix as well, as Jews of different social origins have different linguistic peculiarities. Here is an example of something new to Landsman (p. 286).
"Hebrew?" Berko says. "Mexicans speaking Hebrew?"I have no idea whether these graphic analogies are apt for any variant of Hebrew or Yiddish. They do in any case illustrate Chabon's vivid style, and they are suggestive of the social/political realities associated with these languages. Note also the reversal of the fates of Yiddish and Hebrew. Remember that in this alternative history the fledgling state of Israel is destroyed, and the Yiddish-speaking Jews dominate the Jewish settlement in Sitka.
"That's what it sounded like to me," Landsman says. "Not synagogue Hebrew, either." Landsman knows Hebrew when he hears it. But the Hebrew he knows is the traditional brand, the one his ancestors carried with them through the millennia of their European exile, oily and salty as a piece of fish smoked to preserve it, its flesh flavored strongly by Yiddish. That kind of Hebrew is never employed for human conversation. It's only for talking to God. If it was Hebrew that Landsman heard at Peril Strait, it was not the old salt-herring tongue but some spiky dialect, a language of alkali and rocks. It sounded to him like the Hebrew brought over by the Zionists after 1948. Those hard desert Jews tried fiercely to hold on to it in their exile but, as with the German Jews before them, got overwhelmed by the teeming tumult of Yiddish, and by the painful association of their language with recent failure and disaster. As far as Landsman knows, that kind of Hebrew is extinct except among a few last holdouts meeting annually in lonely halls.
The generation that settled in Alaska found a great disparity between the imagined fables of Alaska and the reality found there. Its songs mark this disillusionment. (291)
Two million Jews got off the boats and found no rolling prairies dotted with buffalo. No feathered Indians on horseback. Only a spine of flooded mountains and fifty thousand Tlingit village-dwellers already in possession of most of the flat and usable land. Nowhere to spread out, to grow, to do anything more than crowd together in the teeming style of Vilna and Lodz. The homesteading dreams of a million landless Jews, fanned by movies, light fiction, and informational brochures provided by the United States Department of the Interior--snuffed on arrival. Every few years some utopian society or other would acquire a tract of green that reminded some dreamer of a cow pasture. They would found a colony, import livestock, pen a manifesto. And then the climate, the markets, and the streak of doom that marbled Jewish life would work their charm. The dream farm would languish and fail.Just a story, or is there more behind Chabon's fictional creation?