Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

Although it probably hasn’t worn too well, one of my favourite books of the nineties was Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase. Its crazy conflation of Raymond Chandler hard-boiled narrative voice and surrealism (the girl with the most beautiful ears in the world and the search for a sheep with a star on its back) was irresistible. I was immediately reminded of that sense of sheer, exuberant enjoyment when I started to read Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. This is an author having tremendous fun, and at the same time debunking a lot of the tired, pretentious literary myths that build up around genre fiction. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a detective story that detects more than just the murder that is unfolded in its very first page. We are launched into it without fanfare. The opening establishes immediately the premise and the mood:

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.

The next 410 pages go on to expand that premise and alter that mood in ways we could not possibly have expected. Chabon plays with us all the time. The genre cliches abound: hard-bitten, maverick cop Landsman, world-weary, drinking far too much, contemplating suicide; the dutiful sidekick, the kick-ass boss (Landsman’s ex). And so on. But stick with it, because all is not as it seems.

Chabon creates a new world, an alternate reality in which, after the Holocaust, European Jews were relocated to Sitka in Alaska. In the novel, as in reality, the State of Israel was founded in 1948, but it is here that Chabon begins his fantasy world. Israel is destroyed after only three months, leading to the repatriation to Sitka, and Palestine subsequently slides into ceaseless conflict. Against this context, a movement emerges seeking the reclamation of Israel for the Jews once more. Meanwhile, Sitka is proving not to be the promised land:

Two million Jews got off the boats and found no rolling prairies dotted with buffalo. No feathered Indians on horseback. Only a spine of flooded mountains and fifty thousand Tlingit village-dwellers already in possession of most of the flat and usable land. Nowhere to spread out, to grow, to do anything more than crowd together in the teeming style of Vilna and Lodz. The homesteading dreams of a million landless Jews, fanned by movies, light fiction, and informational brochures provided by the United States Department of the Interior, snuffed on arrival.

Thus, Chabon neatly pokes fun at the myth of the American West, while also beginning to ponder questions of nationality and the notion of ‘homeland’. Some of the intractable questions of the Middle East, shorn of their geographical context, begin to look less rational. The fundamentalism of the ‘black hats’, in icy, blasted Alaska, rests uneasily. But through it all the sense of discontent is palpable, and we know from history where such discontent may lead. And so, as the story unfolds, it is clear that the Jewish settlers’ disillusionment is growing. One character says of Sitka, ‘This place is like a glass eye, it’s a wooden leg, you can’t pawn it.’

And this forms the basis of the central element of the plot, a conspiracy to reveal the new Messiah and return the Jews to their traditional homeland. Here, the fantasy and the crime genres merge to create something quite new, a vehicle Chabon uses to discuss matters of belief and non-belief, redemption, the inability of the fundamentalist to rise above dogma and revel in the human, the struggle for life. It is all neatly presented and, while to slight to be seriously thought-provoking, it does ask interesting questions.

There’s too much plot to explain here, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Suffice to say it all unravels in delightfully brisk fashion and Chabon’s storytelling is a joy to read. It’s a proper detective story, with a proper resolution. His fantasy world works, too, drawing the reader into it admirably. Chabon also has a way with description. Take this, for example:

Under an hour before dark, and the snow falling is like pieces of broken daylight. The Sitka sky is dull silver plate and tarnishing fast.

Simple and elegant, but wonderfully descriptive. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is full of such description, and there is a warmth to it which is beguiling.

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