Murder Most Yiddish
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union
Fourth Estate, 2007
“Nothing means nothing.” These are the words of Detective Meyer Landsman, the anti-hero protagonist of Michael Chabon’s latest novel, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. This nihilism may seem out of place in Chabon’s wildly active plot, which is part murder mystery, part conspiracy theory, part love story, and part family memoir. But in fact it propels the book forward, contending that grief and exile create voids that human beings inevitably strive to fill. In this way meaninglessness itself becomes a catalyst for powerful actions, such as the murders, investigations and reconciliations that are the pillars of Chabon’s story.
Chabon writes an alternate history, in which the new state of Israel fails soon after its birth in 1948 and Jews are once again expelled into an unwelcoming world. One group is granted a temporary homeland in the District of Sitka, in the midst of the Alaskan wilderness, but decades pass and the settlement is about to revert back to the control of the US government. Carried along by this “tide of Jewish exile” is Meyer Landsman, a divorced policeman who drowns his loneliness in work and alcohol. One night a murder occurs in the flea-bitten motel that Landsman calls home. The body turns out to be that of a heroin-addicted Orthodox Jew, who was once both a chess prodigy and possibly Messiah, who has returned to Earth to redeem the Diaspora. With his job imperiled by his recent failures to solve any cases, Meyer surreptitiously investigates this murder, which soon draws the interest of his half-Indian partner and his boss, who also happens to be his ex-wife. While wrestling with the ghosts of his past, the clues begin to point to a gang of powerful Orthodox gangsters planning to blow up a Muslim holy place, a plot supported by the US government. Unfortunately, Landsman uncovers the plot too late to stop it.
The starting point for Chabon’s novel, this “what if?” question applied to world history, results in political ripples at which he merely hints. For instance, there are references to a Manchurian prime minister and to a Cuban war, reminding us that this settlement of Jews at the end of the Earth is not as remote as it may seem. Rather, it is symbolic of the much wider, often quietly entangled, consequences of historical events. It is a common claim put forth in the most unconventional terms: history matters, contingency matters. This impulse to play with history as commentary on the human condition is not limited to Chabon. It crops up across all literary genres with increasing speed, from Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003).
What Chabon does especially well is to show that the course of history is not merely an impersonal tide, but instead should be of interest to the individual in his daily life. This is ultimately a feat of character development. Landsman’s behavior intuitively makes sense once we learn of his father’s Holocaust experience, expulsion from Israel and eventual suicide. Certainly Landsman’s life would have been very different had these events not occurred, but his interiority shifts our focus to how he would have felt differently, thought differently, behaved differently, rather than what the actual events would have looked like. As readers we are concerned with the emotional processes behind human agency, rather than blinded by dramatic reactions to the external circumstances of existence. We see how the political becomes personal, suffused by a longing for home that affects individuals and nations alike. Such longing inevitably causes chaos, to which both Chabon’s imaginary terrorist attacks and the bloody conflicts of the real world attest. But by giving this chaos a cast of human faces, Chabon compels us to ask whether violence can ever truly fill the void of physical and spiritual homesickness.
Stylistically, Chabon explores such themes through prose that is rich in symbolism rather than hammering them home through interior monologues. The very name of his protagonist, Landsman, represents the interaction of personal and political rootlessness. Landsman tries to retreat into nihilism, living alone with only a bottle of brandy for company, working long hours and missing the family he has allowed to fall apart. But try as he might not to care, the imminent loss of yet another Jewish homeland affects him as deeply as his failure to keep his family together. Like all of us, he has intrinsic investments and attachments that seem to have a force of their own. He is similarly attached to his own fears, such as his phobia of the dark, and his attempts to conquer them parallel the book’s larger message about letting go. Despite his talent for noticing details and years of investigative experience, Landsman undermines his case because he is too afraid to explore the dark underground tunnels of Sitka, which come to play an important role in the Jewish terrorist plot. It is only when he enters those tunnels towards the end of the novel that he experiences a breakthrough, obtaining the critical piece of evidence critical to discovering the plot’s mastermind. While Landsman’s fears mirror the uncertainty of the Jewish situation throughout history and especially now, in the face of Reversion, it also offers a note of hope and the possibility of redemption amid the increasing calamities of Chabon’s plot.
While Chabon’s symbolism works well, sometimes his use of Yiddish phrases feels heavy-handed. The flow of his prose is frequently interrupted by untranslated colloquialisms, such as nu, noz, and shtarker. This is an admirable attempt at cultural immersion but it is difficult to judge Chabon’s accuracy, and reading his characters’ exchanges, one often feels that he is missing the nuances. Furthermore, his characters’ constant references to one another as yids seems grating, perhaps even derogatory, particularly in light of the unrelenting tough-guy bravado of the dialogue.
Nevertheless Chabon, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001 for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, is undoubtedly a literary writer. In particular, his prose is gorgeous and evocative. He describes one character, the boundary maven for an ultra-Orthodox community, as “a wizard, a juju man, with his fingers on the strings that ring the District, and his palms cupping the brackish water of their souls every Sabbath.” These words gracefully convey an image of dizzying power, while the existential allusions align perfectly with the novel’s setting. This deft wordplay meshes well with the slight absurdity of the plot, particularly in lines that mock some of the most cherished traditions of American pop culture. Witness, for example, Landsman’s description of Schnapish, a cartoon dog reminiscent of “the obscure unease that Pluto has always inspired, a dog owned by a mouse, daily confronted with the mutational horror of Goofy.” This is a comic image and yet startling in the intensity of its word choice, which makes the observation no less true.
But Chabon is not a new writer, although both his youth and the publicity surrounding him make him seem like something of an “up-and-comer.” In fact, this is his ninth work, and in many respects it is very different from his earlier writing. In addition to this latest homage to 1940s noir, Chabon’s past endeavors have included young adult fantasies, short story collections, and among other novels, a mystery that centres on the character of the inimitable Sherlock Holmes. Some writers cannot do justice to such a wide range of genres and should perhaps hone their talents in a particular one – for instance, David Stuart Davies once remarked of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tendency to dabble in all forms of literature that “if he had restricted himself to writing short stories only, perhaps today he would be more highly regarded as a writer.” But added to his existing canon, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union suggests that Chabon possesses a rare ability to dabble proficiently, which should continue to reap benefits as his career progresses.
Danielle Granville is an MPhil student in Comparative Government at Brasenose College, Oxford. Her research deals with nationalism and democracy in the post-Soviet space.