- Operation Shylock by Philip Roth
Cape, 398 pp, £14.99, March 1993, ISBN 0 224 03009 4
If you are anything like me, you will find yourself having to fight off a sort of sinking feeling as the new Philip Roth comes thudding into your life. What If A Lookalike Stranger Stole Your Name, Usurped Your Biography, And Went Around The World Pretending To Be You? the jacket flap blares: oh God help us, here we go again. You know there will be a lot of paranoid self-justification, in which the author revisits crimes against Jewry, against wives and against women in general committed in the novels he wrote ten, twenty, thirty years ago. There will be references, veiled or otherwise, to Roth’s personal life, to an insurance salesman father and an English actress wife, to a huge heart bypass operation and a beautiful old clapboard hideaway in Connecticut. You know it will be up to some sort of interplay between real life and fiction, author and persona, history and His story. It is as if all that is left for the great American novel to do is to offer up narrative gizmology as a serious contender to portable computer games.
Unlike most of Philip Roth’s recent novels, Operation Shylock does not feature Nathan Zuckerman, the celebrity-writer persona Roth adopted for his fiction from The Ghost Writer (1979) to The Counterlife (1987). Instead, Operation Shylock stars Philip Roth. Only there are two of them. One is Roth the famous and universally admired writer who gets bothered in the streets all the time, who lives in a clapboard hideaway in Connecticut and has an English actress wife called Claire. The other also appears to have the name Philip Roth on his passport, and looks enough like Roth I easily to be mistaken for him. Roth II is an American Jew from Chicago who worked as a private detective until becoming ill with cancer, one symptom of which is that he is prone to delusions – which may make him an even more proficient fictionaliser than is his counterpart the professional writer.
Lured to Israel by the apparition of Roth II, Roth I becomes embroiled in a plot which eventually involves him committing himself to work as an undercover agent for Mossad. Although it is not apparent what exactly his mission is, it has something to do with meeting Yasser Arafat and something to do with a conspiracy of rich Jews which, Mossad believes, funds the Palestinian liberation struggle out of guilt. According to various prefaces and after-words, this is all completely true. And according to various journalists who have colluded with Roth’s publicity in writing about this book before publication, Roth in the flesh and several of Roth’s friends have verified it. Thus, as often happens with US fiction (remember the rumours that Thomas Pynchon was really J.D. Salinger under another name?), attention is deflected away from the substantive matter of the novel, and onto various gee-whizz discussions of supposedly Post-Modernist authorial behaviour – the adult version of the Phew-It-Was-Only-A-Dream-Or-Was-It metaphysic beloved of primary-school children.
For once you get into it, however, Operation Shylock is a much more interesting book than it appears. For when Roth I, the big-shot Jewish-American writer, comes face to face with Roth II, the minor-league Jewish-American shnorrer, it turns out that Roth II has a really big idea up his sleeve, an idea he calls Diasporism. According to Diasporism, the nation-state of Israel is at best a historically expedient construct which has long outgrown its usefulness, at worst a foolish misinterpretation of what it really means to be a Jew and living in the world. Thus all Israelis of Ashkenazi origin are forthwith to be encouraged to return to their ancestral homes in Europe, the better to fulfil their Diasporist destinies. In this way, a greatly reduced Jewish settlement will cease to be a belligerent presence in Palestine. As Roth II keeps pointing out, everybody thought Theodor Herzl was completely mad too, when he convened the first Zionist Congress in 1897.
Roth II has already visited Lech Walesa to discuss his plans, and fully understands that residual anti-semitism in the old Jewish heartlands of Poland, Lithuania. Germany may be a bit of a stumbling block to the peaceful execution of this exodus. Thus he has also set up an organisation called Anti-Semites Anonymous, complete with a 12-point programme aimed at nipping hate-dependency in the bud. He travels with his companion, Jinx Possesski, a Polish-American oncology nurse who used to be a raving anti-semite until she learned to give her life over to a power greater than herself. And he simply adores Roth I because he sees him as a prime example of modern Judaism’s best hope, ‘a Jew for whom authenticity as a Jew means living in the Diaspora, for whom the Diaspora is the normal condition and Zionism is the abnormality’.