The Yiddish Policemen's Union (5)

I just finished reading Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. I don't want to plant major spoilers in this blog, so I will say that there are two major mysteries solved in the end: the nature of the monstrous conspiracy engineered by Litvak, and the murder of Mendel Shpilman. And the subplot of the relationship between  Meyer Landsman and his ex-wife Bina Gelbfish (now Meyer's boss in the police department) assumes a major role in the end.

As to the leading forces behind the conspiracy, there is a true believer, the cynical manipulator Litvak, and perhaps the most powerful faction which in the real world would correspond to the Christian Zionists. But here is what Litvak thinks (p. 345):
In return for providing them with manpower, a Messiah, and financing beyond their wildest dreams, the only thing that Litvak had ever asked of his partners, clients, employers, and associates in this venture was that he never be expected to believe the nonsense that they believed. Where they saw the fruit of divine wishes in a newborn red heifer, he saw the product of $1 million in taxpayer dollars spent secretly on bull semen and in vitro fertilization. In the eventual burning of this little red cow, they saw the purification of all Israel and the fulfillment of a millenia-old promise; Litvak saw, at most, a necessary move in an ancient game--the survival of the Jews.
As Landsman comes face to face with the key player in the American government who facilitates the plot, he is disgusted with the whole game (p. 368):
"Fuck what it written," Landsman says. "You know what?" All at once he feels weary of ganefs and prophets, guns and sacrifices and the infinite gangster weight of God. He's tired of hearing about the promised land and the inevitable bloodshed required for its redemption. "I don't care what it written. I don't care what supposedly got promised to sandal-wearing idiot whose claim to fame is that he was ready to cut his own son's throat for the sake of a hair-brained idea. I don't care about red heifers and patriarchs and locusts. A bunch of old bones in the sand. My homeland is in my hat. It's in my ex-wife's tote bag."

He sits down. He lights another cigarette.

"Fuck you," Landsman concludes. "And fuck Jesus, too. he was a pussy."
On page 372 you will find an account of Landsman's dream about Einstein, chess, Landsman's sister, and the destiny of the Jews.

Bina, like Landsman, realizes the extent to which she is only a pawn. Omitting egregious spoilers, I'm quoting part of what she says to Meyer (p. 375):
"God damn them all. I always knew they were there. Down there in Washington. Up there over our heads. Holding the strings. Setting the agenda. Of course I knew that. We all knew that. We all grew up knowing that, right? We are here on sufferance. Houseguests. But they ignored us for so long. Left us to our own devices. It was easy to kid yourself. Make you think you had a little autonomy, in a small way, nothing fancy. I thought I was working for everyone. [.....]"
A little later Landsman ruminates (p. 280):
Landsman considers the cohort of yids who arrived with his father, those who were not broken by suffering and horror but rather somehow resolved. The former partisans, resisters, Communist gunmen, left-Zionist saboteurs--the rabble, as they were styled in the newspapers of the south--who showed up in Sitka after the war with their vulcanized souls and fought with Polar Bears like Hertz Shemets their brief, doomed battle for control of the District. They knew, those bold and devastated men, knew as they knew the flavor of the tongues in their mouths, that their saviors would one day betray them. They walked into this wild country that had never seen a Jew and set about preparing for the day when they would be rounded up, sent packing, forced to make a stand. Then, one by one, these wised-up angry men and women had been coopted, picked off, fattened up, set against one another, or defanged by Uncle Hertz and his endless operations.
That's about all I can reveal of the plot. As for my overall evaluation, I have come to admire Chabon's fictional achievement. It really does take a lot to write a novel like this. I am not so taken with the nature of the apocalyptic conspiracy that forms the linchpin of the plot, but perhaps that reflects the prevalence now of the theocratic fascism that threatens to destroy the world. Ultimately, this is a meditation on the precarious nature of Jewish identity, which, in the confines of this scenario makes sense, whether or not it would be my main preoccupation in the real world. Chabon's style is quite rich, and he does successfully create a noirish evironment, in which the authenticity of his own Yiddishisms doesn't matter so much.

When you are finished reading the novel, think again about the title.

In addition to the installments of this review, if you follow the subject "Michael Chabon" on this blog, you will find meditations about alternative history and historically oriented novels in general, Jewish and otherwise. I rarely read novels, but before this, I read Ned Bauman's Boxer, Beetle, which featured a seedy lower class Jewish milieu in the East End of London in the 1930s. I don't have much to go on to posit a trend, but I can speculate.

If there is some trend of writing Jewish historical fiction and alternate histories--the ones I know are those in which Esperanto and Zamenhof pop up--it must mean something about an attitude toward the present, as if there were past potentialities according to which things might have turned out differently. But I don't know enough about any of the authors to know their minds, and while I know why Jews and others would be disillusioned with American society or the contemporary world as a whole, I am too far removed from specifically Jewish concerns and their corresponding milieu to know what Jewish authors think about Jews, if generalizations are supportable.

As you know, the whodunit begins with a burned-out, alcohol-besodden detective investigating the murder of a chess-playing junkie in the run-down Hotel Zamenhof in which they both reside. In the end there's a bit of redemption for Meyer Landsman, though not for the society in which he lives. I haven't researched enough of Michael Chabon to know whether Hotel Zamenhof is so named in order to contrast the shabbiness of the reality with the utopian ideal. Zamenhof was a pioneer of the Zionist movement in its earliest stages and renounced it by the time it was becoming a real project, favoring a universalist humanistic project even while still working on the problem of adapting East European Jewry to the modern world. Zamenhof only gets brief mention in the novel as a putative ghost. Perhaps whatever redemption there is must be covered in the grime of hard experience. Perhaps there is at least a reminder of the possibility of redemption in our Hotel Zamenhof?

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