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 Post subject: Book Review: "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" by M.
PostPosted: Thu May 29, 2008 5:55 pm 
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(In response to Hostrauser's review on his blogspot of a book by Michael Chabon, I thought I would reproduce a comment I left there with regards to another of Mr. Chabon's novels. I wanted to share it with the those who might be interested here, and hopefully direct more people to Hostrauser's blog which offers more of his book reviews.)

It’s interesting that you would have recently reviewed a novel by Michael Chabon, an author whom I recently discovered. While perusing the list of books which are up for this year’s Hugo Award (for Science Fiction, a genre I have been reading since I picked up my first Ray Bradbury collection as a child), I came across the title of his latest work, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”. This seemed unusual since it brought to mind the fact that this book had been briefly profiled on NPR sometime last year, and that on venues such as that one (and in Academia in general) Science Fiction has not been viewed favorably. I was reminded of the resolve I had taken back then to read it, a resolve which was unfortunately drowned under the weight of the every-day barrage of white noise. I thought I would thus share these observations as a companion to your review of his other work.

To begin with, the verbal creativity in this novel was amazing! I found the dialogue snappy and crisp, and his descriptions of characters and locations to be wonderfully evocative of a place and time which could have been, had history followed a different path. This is after all an alternate history which posits the creation of a Jewish refugee zone in the district of Sitka, in southern Alaska, a zone which was actually proposed in our timeline but never enacted. This is a frontier which is imagined as having received millions of Jewish refugees from Europe, not enough to have saved all the victims of the Holocaust but enough to have preserved a vibrant Yiddish culture, with refugees enacting their own heroic frontier narrative of struggle and survival while also unfortunately recapitulating other sordid episodes, such as the clash with native Indian cultures.

Here we have memorable characters such as the physically immense and somewhat lugubrious figure of Rebbe Shpilman, the leader of a Jewish conservative clan know as the Verbovers who have shaped the district with their own mix of apocalyptic devotion and petty crime, and others such as the half-Indian, half-Jewish policeman known as Berko Shemets (who we could almost imagine as a stolid, taciturn and out-sized totem icon if it weren’t for his outbursts of compassion, anger and desolation), and the figure of Bina Gelbfish, the no-nonsense, well-grounded Police Chief and former wife of the protagonist, detective Meyer Landsman. Bina exudes all the sexual heat and gravitational pull of a minor star and, in a comic resonance, recalls to my mind the attraction that cartoonist and free-spirit Robert Crumb, he of “Mr. Natural” fame, finds in women with generously-proportioned derrieres. In fact, almost all the characters seem to incorporate a sense of scale and primal essence which is in contrast with the historical circumstance which underlies this mystery, that of a Jewish community which is on the verge of disintegration as this district is about to revert back to American control, thus renewing the seemingly eternal cycle of Jewish dispersion.

Since this book is also a murder mystery, the dialogue of this Yiddish shammes (detective Landesman) is also appropriately dry, evincing the world-weariness of detective figures who are forced to confront their own cynicism and need for redemption(which is in part occupational, and in part existential) as they seek to craft the “stories” that give meaning to the vices as well as triumphs of human existence. And with the backdrop of 3,000 years of Jewish suffering, what better way to underscore this suffering than in the disruptions, antagonism, confrontations, and occasional joyous communions (but mostly antagonisms) of these characters?

I’m sorry that you found the language of his other book ("The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay") so uneven, but in the case of this novel, the metaphors and visual evocations were much more evenly distributed, and struck me with a certain freshness which lingered in my mind for days afterward. Yiddish is an extremely earthy as well as direct language, one which is so suited to a culture of disputation, of interaction and verbal jousts. We’ve inherited so much of this as English has incorporated Yiddish idioms into daily language, and this is augmented by the rich tradition of Borsht belt comedy, where expressions abound such as verbs which have become so familiar to us like “schlepping” and “kvetching”, in exclamations (“Oy, vey”) and in the very rich and funny language of vituperation (“schlemiel”, “tucchus” and “schmuck”) and expressions (“Go crap in the ocean!” exclaim several of the characters) which are evocative of a time and place (the shtetls of Eastern Europe) which have sadly disappeared. All of which tinges this novel with a hint of nostalgia and sadness for what has been lost.

The murder mystery (which is explained in part through the medium of chess, and is filtered as well in Jewish mysticism regarding the appearance and rejection in every generation of a messiah, in this case possibly present in the figure of the murder victim, the son of Rebbe Schpilman) is not the strong suite of this novel, since it seems to depends too much on moments of epiphany and not on painstaking logic, but the story of human compassion and the redemption of the Yiddish detective (who yearns for an unborn son who was lost in a miscarriage, and who would have been named Django) does ring true. Thus, in the end, I found this book more satisfying from an emotional rather than intellectual standpoint, and as with all good and memorable literature, actually find the journey more compelling than the actual destination.

I’m looking forward to reading "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay", even though Hostrauser had reservations, but I thought I would chime in with this small review of Michael Chabon’s latest novel.


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PostPosted: Thu May 29, 2008 7:03 pm 
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My review of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay:
http://yossarian-lives.blogspot.com/2008/05/amazing-adventures-of-kavalier-clay.html

My book review site's master index:
http://yossarian-lives.blogspot.com/2006/07/bookcase.html

Current novel/next review: You Suck by Christopher Moore


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