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Israel in Alaska

Michael Chabon's Yiddish detective novel is a unique classic.

By Crawford Kilian 27 Aug 2007 |

Crawford Kilian is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

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A frozen Yiddish mystery.
  • The Yiddish Policemen's Union
  • Michael Chabon
  • HarperCollins (2007)

Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union is the most entertaining, and most literate, novel that I've read in a long time. It's worth reading just for its complex characters and fast-paced plot. But there is also real satisfaction to be found from tracing the hybrid ancestry of the genre that Chabon has created.

On one level, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a murder mystery, with a stubborn but tormented detective battling everyone who keeps him from solving it (including himself). But it's also a work of science fiction, set in an alternate world in which the Federal District of Sitka, just up the coast from B.C., is home to millions of Jews scattered after the stillbirth of the state of Israel in 1948.

Alternate history --- with worlds where the South won the Civil War, or aliens invaded during the Second World War -- is a popular kind of science fiction. Personally, I'm a pushover for it, even if most of the novels in the genre are awful.

But even science fiction itself springs from an earlier literary form that Northrop Frye called "anatomy" or "Menippean satire." It's a kind of scholarly joke on scholars, in which we look at the world in terms of a single idea. Thomas More's Utopia is a familiar example; so is Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. And Chabon's work owes as much to those forms and those worlds as any other.

A world without Israel

Here, Chabon explores the idea of a world without Israel. The Second World War ended in 1946 with the atomic bombing of Berlin. The Arabs destroyed the nascent Israeli state, and millions of Jews have nowhere to go. The U.S. government has a temporary solution: allocate the Alaskan panhandle to displaced Jews for 60 years.

In Chabon's book, it's now November 2007, and the 60 years are up. The Jewish district is about to be returned to the Tlingit natives and no one knows what will happen to the area's 3.2 million Jews.

Traces of anatomy

Anatomy has a number of conventions that set it apart from other genres. One is the moral significance of the language the characters speak (Orwell's Newspeak is an example). Here, everyone speaks Yiddish, even the Tlingit.

In the real world, Yiddish has largely vanished, overwhelmed by Israeli Hebrew. But for centuries it was both a widespread spoken language and the vehicle of a rich written culture of fiction, poetry, drama and philosophy. In the book, Chabon imagines how Yiddish might have endured as the language of cops and crooks; Sitka in 2007 is a lot like the 1907 Odessa of Isaac Babel's famous Jewish gangster Benya Krik.

Anatomy also requires an isolated society: an island, a remote valley, a planet other than ours. The Federal District of Sitka is certainly that. The district is a narrow strip of islands and coast, where the native neighbours exist in an uneasy, sometimes violent relationship with the Jews. It's colder, wetter and greener than Israel, but otherwise, the resemblance is pretty close.

A third key convention in anatomy is the importance of a document that explains the society. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, it's The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. In Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, it's The Book of Bokonon. Here it's a book of classic chess games, with a vital clue hidden in it. But the whole body of Yiddish literature dominates the culture of the district.

Hasidic gangsters, American spies and Tlingit cops

Anatomy doesn't care much for plot, and here Chabon abandons the genre for the complexity of the mystery thriller. His unhappy cop, Meyer Landsman, investigates the mysterious murder of a heroin addict who just might have been the Messiah.

The investigation takes him into a world of Hasidic gangsters, American spies, Tlingit cops, and the sorrows of his own family. The story offers more than one homage to the hard-boiled detective novel. Like private eye Philip Marlowe, Meyer is imprisoned in a sinister clinic, and he later notices a Raymond Chandler novel, translated into Yiddish, on the night table of a prime suspect. He also has to deal with a nasty American named Spade.

The district as character

Meyer Landsman is a likable and very funny guy despite his self-inflicted sorrows, and in the conventions of the crime novel, the cop is the social redeemer who identifies the evildoers and shows that the rest of us are innocent.

But the district itself is also a major character -- a highly plausible but very fragile society an awful lot like ours. Chabon evokes both his hero and the district by describing that society in a Yiddish-enriched English, making the novel's style as juicy, sour and crunchy as a good kosher pickle.

I'm no fan of self-consciously "good" writing. (See my review of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.) But Chabon gets away with it because Meyer Landsman really sees his world in this sharp and vivid language. He's like the omniscient grandmother who tells the tales of Gabriel García Márquez -- a storyteller who's grown up in a culture of storytellers.

Some hack writers will try to combine different genres, and the result is pastiche -- like shoplifting in a garbage dump. "Literary" writers often go slumming in popular genres like mystery and sci-fi, usually without success.

But Michael Chabon clearly loves the genres he's working in. More than most writers, he knows what those genres are capable of. He infuses them with an energy rarely displayed in the work of ordinary genre authors, but also with a sly wit that literary authors rarely display either. (The throwaway lines alone are worth the price of the book: Marilyn Monroe Kennedy?)

Northrop Frye said that the "stock response" is the sign of dull, safe literature, when the author simply panders to the reader's desire for a good laugh or a good cry. However you react to The Yiddish Policemen's Union, it won't be with a stock response.