Friday, 23 May 2008

Yid Noir

In 1997, the author Michael Chabon wrote an essay on the decline of the Yiddish language. The decline, in part, is a result of the adoption of Hebrew as the language of the state of Israel. During his research for the essay, Chabon unearthed the Slattery Report, a plan hatched in 1938 both to provide a safe home for European Jews threatened by Germany, and to bolster the relatively underpopulated territory of Alaska (then not a fully-fledged US state). The plan never garnered much support from either the US government or the Jewish community, so was never implemented. In The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon writes a "what-if" novel in which the Slattery Report's plan was implemented and Alaska really was settled by European Jews.

Meyer Landsman is a homicide detective in the Jewish homeland of Sitka, Alaska. Down on his luck after the death of his sister, his divorce, and the appointment of his ex-wife as his boss, Landsman's life is thrown into further turmoil when he begins to investigate the death of a junkie in the seedy hotel that he calls "home". Aside from his love of heroin, the dead man seems to have been a major chess player, but rummaging through the mysterious world of chess clubs turns up some more ominous information. The dead man is Mendel Shpilman, son of Rebbe Shpilman, the rabbi and head of the Hasidic Verbover criminal gang. What's more, Shpilman seems to have been feted by some as the next Jewish messiah. As Landsman delves deeper, his investigations take him, his half-Indian partner Berko, and his ex-wife, on a tortuous journey that takes in the Jewish underworld, religious fundamentalists and a mysterious facility deep in the countryside. At the same time, the homeland created by the Slattery Report is being disbanded, and its Jewish tenants are dispersing. But where are they going next?

It's difficult to know quite where to start praising this novel, it simply succeeds on so many different levels. Most obviously, it's successful as a hard-boiled noir novel. Both in terms of style and plotting, it's a fine example of the genre (or, at least, what the genre has become). Although crime fiction only makes up a relatively small fraction of what I read, I'm definitely a sucker for noir's fusion of serious events with ironic detachment and witty rejoinders (c.f. my earlier posting on Century Rain). Were I to be pretentious, I could say something about how this fitted with my generally ironic outlook on life, but that's a bit too "travelling up my own arse". Turning to the noir-ish dialogue, it's filled with great lines like this one (where an Indian sheriff comments to Landsman on the arrival of a new Jewish messiah):

"Not that I'm a religious man, God knows," Dick puts in. "But I feel compelled to point out that the Messiah already came, and you bastards fucking killed the motherfucker." (pg. 295)

As can probably be gathered from the above, Chabon creates some very interesting characters along the way. But more significantly, he breathes a depth into them far beyond that which typifies the crime genre. The central relationships between Landsman, his ex-wife Bine, his partner Berko, and their families are convincingly drawn, and the characters are, well, nice, but retain rough edges shaped by their histories. There's more than simply a crime tale being played out here, and though crime defines the professional lives of the major characters, they have personal lives that are fleshed out more fully and plausibly than one has a right to expect from even a good crime novel.

Another successful facet is the novel's handling of its alternative history. The reader is only drip-fed details of how a Jewish community came to be established in Alaska. To the extent that, for much of the earlier portion of the novel, it's not entirely clear when the novel is set. That it's noir almost preconditions the reader to view it as occurring in the past (though Century Rain and Gun, with Occasional Music provide solid counterexamples), but as the novel proceeds it becomes clearer that the world it presents is an alternative present. This gradual unfurling of the novel's world works brilliantly, with the reader gradually putting details in place and building up a more complete picture of Sitka, Alaska. And the novel doesn't try too hard with this either - aspects of the alternative history are mixed gently into the narrative without "SCENE SETTING" written all over them.

One particularly interesting aspect of the novel is the angle it takes on Israel and Zionism. Although Israel does not exist in the alternative history, the political machinations that drive the novel's plot want things to change on this score. Through his characters' views about this, Chabon appears to present a rather negative view of this latter development. Although not entirely welcomed in Alaska, the "Frozen Chosen" (as the Alaskan Jews are known) are generally happy in their frigid home, and aren't in a rush to reclaim the land that is (ostensibly) promised to them. That Chabon chooses rather evangelical shadowy figures to guide the unfolding plot can be read as a not-so-veiled criticism of similar figures in our own present day, who seek not a homeland for the Jews, but the culmination of a certain theological prophesy. Either way, I'm sure that Chabon made some new friends, and some new enemies, with this part of the novel.

If I were to criticise at all, I'd say that Chabon's use of Yiddish, while completely in tune with the novel's origin and its setting, makes things difficult to follow at times. While some Yiddish expressions are mainstream in modern culture, most aren't, so occasionally one comes across an uninterpretable word or description. Usually context sorts this out, but not always. Another "issue" I'd raise is the messianic status of the murdered junkie at the heart of the story. Most of the characters don't take this at all seriously, but as the novel proceeds there are more and more hints that Mendel Shpilman really is the Messiah (or a messiah; one of the novel's details is that some Jewish groups think a messiah is born every generation, but is never discovered). But these hints are almost completely ignored by most of the characters, who continue to have an entirely secular reading of events. While (obviously) such a reading would appeal to me, there is still the question of the accumulating evidence that Shpilman was more than just a chess player. Still, since this evidence is always presented as hearsay, perhaps I'm just being gullible. Landsman would set me straight on that one.

In passing, while completely different in almost every respect, the novel shares its Jewish alternative history theme with Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2004). In that novel, history diverges around 1940, when the anti-semitic Charles Lindbergh takes the US Presidency. However, events conspire to push history back on course towards our own. In The Yiddish Policemen's Union, history diverges around the same time, but has continued to diverge to the present day. That said, with the Alaskan Jewish homeland's disassembly and several other events, there's a suggestion that the alternative history presented may gradually converge again with our own.

Anyway, in summary, while not a deep novel of great literary significance, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a first-rate trans-genre novel. Primarily crime genre, but transcending this with impressive literary fiction flourishes. Brilliant.

As a final aside, according to its Wikipedia entry, The Yiddish Policemen's Union has actually been nominated for a number of science fiction prizes (it has already won the Nebula Award). Although I've bemoaned the fiction/science fiction divide before, I'd argue that this is actually an example of where science fiction has reached over and grabbed something that really belongs to literary and crime fiction. Apart from dealing with a separate history, the novel is ostensibly present day and contains no standard themes or icons of the science fiction genre. I suspect that crime fans might bemoan this novel as an example of a literary fiction author romping all over their genre (much as I've whined about over at science fiction), but labelling this as science fiction is a little cheeky.

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