Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

This is a bold book to write in today's political climate. It starts off as a fairly conventional hardboiled detective novel:
Nine months Landsman's been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered. Now somebody has put a bullet in the brain of the occupant of 208, a yid who was calling himself Emanuel Lasker.
Detective Landsman is a bit down on his luck, as is evident from living in such a flophouse. His sister was killed a wee while ago in a plane accident, his parents are dead (for 23 years, Landsman had thought it was something he said which brought his father to suicide), his marriage has broken up, his kid was stillborn. To make matters worse, his ex wife has been promoted and his now his boss. All fairly consistent setting for a detective novel and, indeed, the plot is determined by Landsman's efforts to find the killer of his fellow resident: he feels it his duty to do so, given the guy was killed in Landsman's home. He fairly shortly hits opposition from his boss: for reasons I'll mention in a moment, all current files need to be closed within two months, and opening a new one is not an option. That doesn't stop the good detective.

But this novel is also an alternate history, speculative fiction even. One premise is that Israel never happened. At the end of World War II, about two million "yids", predominantly from the Ukraine, formed a community on an island off the coast of Alaska, on a place called Sitka. (This is a real place, to quote its website, "Sitka is thought to be the most beautiful of southeast Alaska cities. Nestled on the west side of Baranof Island, it is flanked on the east by majestic snow-capped mountains, and on the west by the Pacific Ocean." Apparently FDR floated the idea it be used as a Jewish colony.) They wanted to form a self governing nation there but instead were given a sixty year period, as a kind of favour by the US government. At the time of the novel, this period has about three months to run, before "Reversion": very few people have any idea what the future holds, but it looks dismal. And so Landsman's unauthorised inquiry takes him into the heart of "black hat" territory, that of a particular sect of Hasidic Jews, the rebbe of which is also a sort of Jewish Tony Soprano (only much fatter):
Rabbi Heskel Shpilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running. A little kid lumped him together, a mob of kids, blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man. They clumped the dough of his arms and legs to the dough of his body, then jammed his head down on top. A millionaire could cover a Rolls-Royce with the fine black silk-and-velvet expanse of the rebbe's frock coat and trousers. It would require the brain strength of the eighteen greatest sages in history to reason through the arguments against and in favour of classifying the rebbe's massive bottom as either a creature of the deep, a man-made structure, or an unavoidable act of God. If he stands up, or if he sits down, it doesn't make any difference in what you see.
No - the prose is not always this elaborate, which is just as well, but Chabon can turn it on when he wants to.

Another odd feature is that the murder victim might be, is pretty much taken to be, Messiah - there's one born every generation, apparently, but circumstances have to be right for him to take his place. One such circumstance involves the birth of an unblemished red cow, which brings to me a part of the book which had me howling with laughter. Landsman and his partner, Berko, are on the case - it has taken them to a remote spot in Indian-occupied Alaska. They're quite thoroughly confused to find that there is some sort of secret base there devoted to farming cows - something which Landsman sees as beyond any vision of any promised land any Jew might have had. So, they're looking at these cows, they're Aryshire (white cows with red patches), Landsmen is resisting the urge to lean on the electric fence, when Berko says something: "She's not a white cow with red spots,' Berko says with finality. 'She's a red cow with white spots." He leaps over the electric fence:
The cows react to the intrusion with complaint and protest but little in the way of emotion. Berko makes straight for the one that's bothering him, marches right up to it. It shies away, lowing. He holds up his arms, palms outward. He speaks to it in Yiddish, American, Tlingit, Old and Modern Bovine. He circles it slowly, looking it up and down. Landsman sees berko's point: this cow is not like the others, in contour or coloration.
The cow submits to Berko's inspection. He puts a hand on its crop, and it waits, hoofs spread, knock-kneed, head canted at a listening angle. Berko ducks down and peers at its underside. He runs his fingers along its ribs, up its neck, to the poll of its head, then back along its flank to the tentlike rigging of its hips. There his hand stops, in the middle of a white patch of hide. Berko raises his fingers of his right hand to his mouth, moistens the tips, then rubs in a circular motion against the white patch of the cow's rump He takes his fingers away, contemplates them, smiles, frowns. Then he lumbers back across the field and stops at the fence, opposite Landsman.
He holds up his right hand as if in solemn parody of the salute of a cigar store Indian, and Landsman sees that his fingers are streaked with flakes of white.
'Fake spots,' Berko says...
'So,' says Landsman, 'what are you saying? The cow is wearing a disguise?'
'That's what I'm saying.'
'Somebody painted white spots on a red cow.'
'So it appears.'
'This fact has significance to you.'
Now's where the bold bit comes in: a further necessary circumstance for the Messiah is that the original Temple (i.e. on Temple Mount in Jerusalem) needs to be restored - one small problem being that the site currently houses the Al Aksa Mosque. Now there's a Temple Mount website which suggests it might be targeted by Islamic terrorists, who would blame Israel and thus give justification for war. Chabon is playing with this notion - but Israel doesn't exist. Instead, he has fundamentalist Jews and "mad yids" doing the deed, but at the behest of the American government (or, at least, a "divinely inspired mission of the president of America"). And that takes us to a bitter pun - there's an American fellow called Cashdollar pulling various strings. When everyone works out what has been going on, Bina (Landsman's boss) says:
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. You know. Serving the public. Upholding the law. But really I was just working for Cashdollar.
There's much more to enjoy in the novel - the details he gives of this made up city, the idiomatic language he creates, where English is populated by many Yiddish words (a review in Slate compares it with Burgess's Clockwork Orange) (there is also the American language - very profane) and the character of Landsman himself - deeply flawed he may be, but he's a good man, it just takes him a while to find his mojo. Solving this crime is very important for him at a personal level, as he finds a form of redemption. I need to talk about chess to explain this - the reason he thought he'd caused his father's suicide was that, after years of his father trying to engage Landsman in the game, he finally had enough and told dad (in a letter) he hated the game, just didn't get it. Two days later, dad was dead. Most of the characters are chess obsessive - the deceased had adopted the name of a chess guru and had a chess game set up beside his death bed. Landsman knew this was an important clue in solving the case, and while he could memorise the location of the chessmen, he couldn't "read" them. His breakthrough, both in solving the crime and in his own life, came when he finally got the message given by the board. (I suspect I have similar limitations in reading this novel, in that there's probably a lot of references someone more knowledgeable about Jewish history and aspirations would pick up.)

One thing I haven't seen explained is the title. He's a policeman, part of Sitka central police force. It is only when he has his badge and gun taken from him that he pulls out a membership card for the Yiddish Policemen's Union (he's been a paid up member for twenty years) and then only uses it once anyway.



Blogger YMedad said...

I invite you to read my monograph from 2000 portraying the Temple Mount as a flashpoint.

7:44 AM  

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