Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

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.

Michael Chabon's latest novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, at first seems to be simply a homage to the 1940's detective story, and that is certainly the backbone characteristic of this story, but it is also written in an alternative future and is richly embellished with Jewish cultures and the intricacies of chess. One reviewer at Publisher's Weekly called this book "a
murder-mystery speculative-history Jewish-identity noir chess thriller." Right. That's exactly what it is.

Chabon imagines what would have been if Franklin Roosevelt's proposal to establish a temporary Jewish settlement on the Alaskan panhandle had been carried out. The talented author calls this place Sitka, and populates it with "the frozen chosen," some of the most richly described characters in fiction. Chabon's similes and metaphors, some quite humorous, are remarkable.

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 favor 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.

The hero of this tale is Meyer Landsman, a cop, or as the Yiddish say, a noz. (I didn't let my lack of Yiddish background or chess intimidate me while reading, by the way, because everything the reader needs to know is there, though this is a challenging book). Landsman is obviously in a bad way, living in a slum of a hotel, a man just divorced, with a drinking problem and insomnia. . Anyway, when Landsman starts to investigate this murder, he finds himself delving ever deeper into the various cultures in and around Sitka, which are made so real by the author's vivid imagination. What Landsman uncovers about the murdered man fascinates him and is very important and central to every facet of this complicated plot. All the while, too, is a looming deadline in everything Landsman does; the Yiddish settlement in Sitka is nearing the end of its 60-year, temporary status, and Sitka is scheduled to revert back to Alaskan control in a matter of a couple months. Indeed, Sitka's denizens have adopted the refrain, "these are strange times to be a Jew."

What does chess have to do with it? Oy, that's another matter, but it's an important part of Landsman's childhood landscape and a window into the minds and personalities of several male characters in the novel. Two other important personalities are Landsman's partner, his half-Tlingit, half-Jewish cousin Berko, and his ex-wife Bina, who is now, suddenly, his boss.

I love the dialogs in this novel! The constant sarcastic wit and tough-guy affection going on between the characters is highly entertaining and provides comic relief to a background that is so bleak. The various plots in this novel were like converging waters, which the author kept parted until they reached their boiling point. The Yiddish Policemen's Union shows off the boundless talent of Michael Chabon, and I would highly recommend it.


TLP said...

Well, then, I want to borrow it. Bring it on Saturday...unless you have to hang on to it for book group.

actonbell said...

Sure, maybe I'll bring along a couple. This is not a contender for the book group.

actonbell said...

Why, yes, Ekim, that WAS a mixed metaphor, sorry.

Doug said...

Sold. Mixed metaphors and all.

TLP said...

BTW, I loved Three Junes. I'm re-reading parts of it.

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