Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

Not long ago, Erin of A Dress A Day wrote about a word I'd never heard, namely diegogarcity, which means that you learn something new and then suddenly notice it all over the place. And it was also through a link in another of Erin's posts that I learnt of the red heifer, because being Catholic of course my Bible skillz are a little atrocious - too busy remembering the sacraments, dontchaknow. Anyway, so then I read The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon, and was immensely gratified that I knew what was coming the minute they arrived at the field with cows. Stuff like that makes you feel smart. So thank you Erin!

The novel is based on an alternative history premise. During WWII the Alaskan town of Sitka attracted Jewish refugees and settlers, and after the war the US government gave the Jews autonomous control of the place for 60 years. In other words Sitka is an alternative to the state of Israel, which in this novel lost that first Arab-Jewish war in -48, and all the New Hebrews were driven out. Instead Sitka grows to a Yiddish city of over 3 million inhabitants. Our hero is Meyer Landsman, a noir-esque policeman with plenty of demons, who hides in his work and in alcohol, waiting for Reversion, when Sitka once again becomes American and all the Jews (almost) have to leave. He lives at a grotty hotel, and one night the manager wakes him and asks him to come look at a dead body in another room. This becomes a case that he gets told to drop, but can't. Instead he and his half-Indian partner-cum-cousin slog at it, to find some sort of truth.

The idea of the Yiddish culture living on is, in itself, fascinating. The shards that survived the Holocaust were all but swallowed up in life post-war, and perhaps especially in Israel's desperate desire to leave the shtetl behind once and for all. Here they all speak Yiddish, except to now and they say "fuck you" in "American". People play chess and klezmer, they eat kugel and pickles, no-one has neo-Hebrew names. Chabon's future yiddische Sitka is quite depressing though. Crime seems to be rife, but maybe this is just because it's a cop novel after all, and that's what they see. In an unusual twist one of the most powerful Orthodox rebbes is also a major crime lord - the ultimate break with shtetl subservience perhaps. Is it this bleak because Sitka is only on loan? Because the shtetl came with the Jews to Sitka (not my opinion necessarily, I think our hero Meyer Landsman voices it at some point)? Because all hope really has died after the Holocaust and death of the fledgling Jewish state? I haven't quite decided what the angle is - if there is any. I read (on Wikipedia) that it was being filmed by the Coen brothers. I wonder if they'll be able to pull off the many layers the novel has, or if it will end up one-dimensional - good cop with booze problem and hot ex-wife. The Coens don't have a one-dimensional track record by any means, but the novel is full of pitfalls. And language - are they going to film it in Yiddish? How are they going to manage that? If they don't they'll miss out on a lot.

I had a lot of things I wanted to write about The Yiddish Policemen's union, but I'm having trouble expressing my thoughts... Let me finish by stating that I definitely will be reading more of Michael Chabon. He's very good.


HB said...

Skal sjekke ut denne - OG jeg gleder meg til å lese Laurie R Kings "Touchstone":-) Jeg foretrekker seriene (selv om Folly er veldig bra, ja), så jeg har middels forventninger. Men middels forventninger til Laurie er i realiteten ganske høye forventninger... :-)

bani said...

Men där är du ju! Har saknat dig på nätet! :D

HB said...

Ja, det ble en laaang pause. Men nå nærmer det seg skoleslutt, og ting er litt roligere:-)