12 October 2008

Review : THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION, Michael Chabon

2007, Harper Collins Publishers, ISBN 978-0-00-715039, 414 pages.

Meyer Landsman has dedicated twenty years of his life to the District Police of Sitka, a refuge for Jews who survived Europe's Holocaust. "When there is crime to fight, Landsman tears around Sitka like a man with his pant leg caught on a rocket." Recently, since the collapse of his marriage, he has been living in a fleapit of a hotel. He feels almost affronted when the night manager tells him there is a body with a bullet in its brain in Room 208. Worse still, Landsman recognises the body as the long lost son of the local rebbe, a child prodigy once regarded by the Jewish community as a possible Messiah.

Hanging over the community too is the Reversion. Within a few short weeks, Sitka, which for fifty years has been an isolated and self-managing Jewish enclave, will revert to Alaskan rule, and the Homicide Section of the Sitka District Police of which Landsman is a member will cease to exist. The Jews of Sitka are preparing to move out. In charge of the handover to the Alaskan police is Landsman's ex-wife Bina. Bina is keen to clean up outstanding cases and does not want the inconvenience of a new murder case.

As Landsman investigates the murder he delves not only into his past, and the recent death of his own sister, but he uncovers a scheme by Sitka Jewish fanatics to reclaim Jerusalem.

To be honest I didn't find this an easy read. In the last fifty or so pages I was just wishing it would finish. The writing is very detailed, and littered with words I didn't quite understand. I had a feeling that if I was Jewish, or perhaps Alaskan, or even American, I might have understood what was going on better. I found myself reading and then re-reading, fearful that I might miss something, and that is always an exasperating process.

It's a very black novel, imbued with the despair of people who have an uncertain future. My research revealed that the location of Sitka is real enough, but it is just somewhere Michael Chabon chose to locate this fictional Jewish enclave. What we have is an exploration of what happens when a group of zealots, unwelcome in their homeland, are now uprooted from their current refuge. Chabon is really writing a crime fiction novel based on an alternate history.

The writing also revealed however that Michael Chabon has a quirky sense of humour, black comedy that emerges when you least expect it.
"Half an hour out of Yakovsky, Landsman decided to spice up their journey with a judicious application of vomit."

There were times when I wondered how Meyer Landsman survived the constant assaults on his person. He is beaten to a pulp, grazed with a bullet, whacked across the back of the head, almost frozen to death, and anaethetised more than once. Permeating all is his failed relationship with his ex-wife, the fact that he still loves her, and his surprise that she still loves him.

In 2001 Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize for THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY.
I think what we have in THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN'S UNION is a cross genre novel, a literary mystery in which the literary dominates. However, just because I found it a bit hard going, doesn't mean that others will, and certainly there are a heap of more favourable reviews.

My rating: 4.2

Links

Information about Jews in Alaska
Sitka, Alaska on Wikipedia.
New York Times Review
WITH “Policemen’s Union,” Mr. Chabon was aiming not only for a classic detective story with a twisting, page-turning plot, but also for rich characters and detail, psychological depth and cosmic truth — or at least cosmic questions. The book’s mysteries are manifold. There is the mystery of a murder and a chess problem, the larger conspiracy it may be linked to, the fate of the Jews without a homeland, and then the ultimate mystery of existence itself.
.....
[Michael Chabon] visited Alaska and chose Sitka (it “sounds kind of Yiddish”) as home for the three million European Jews — and their children and grandchildren — his imagination saved from the Holocaust. ...... In reality, the 4,710-square-mile island, much of it mountains and national forest, has a population of 8,947, of which no more than 35 adults are Jewish.
Another Review

4 comments:

justareadingfool said...

I tried this one a few months ago, but couldn't get into it. However, I'd like to try it again. I've been working on his The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and found that to be hard-going too. I think Chabon in general must not be an easy read, but in the end, from what I've heard from others, his books are worth the effort (mostly).

Kerrie said...

Some interesting thoughts occur as you push through YIDDISH and as I didn't know whether the location was fictitious or not it spurred me to do some research, so I've learnt a lot. It was just such slow going in places. There were a couple of time shifts too which made me think.

Bernadette said...

I was looking forward to this book as I've read (and enjoyed) Kavalier and Clay and liked the premise of the alternate Jewish history. However I was disappointed. I'm sure it sounded like a good idea on paper to write a book using Yiddish sentence structure and loads of Yiddish words but it didn't carry a whole book. And, when I left the book somewhere around a third of the way through, I don't think he was doing a great job of either a mystery OR an allegorical story about outsiders. And Landsman was plain unbelievable. So this one was a DNF for me and I have no intention of going back to it. In fact the best thing about the book for me was the satisfying thunk sound it made when I pushed it through the after hours return slot at the library ;)

When I reached the ripe old age of 40 I decided that when reading for pleasure I would no longer finish books I'm not enjoying (take THAT Mrs M - my year 12 English teacher). Life's too short, there are too many other books, and I no longer think it's my job as a reader to slog my way through anything published.

Kerrie said...

I know that's what I should do sometimes Bernadette but one part of me just grits it's teeth and ploughs on. It'll be a while before I tackle another Chabon though.

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