Sashimi with a Side of Fries

Adam Thirlwell

  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
    Fourth Estate, 414 pp, £17.99, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 00 715039 7

This is a miniature dictionary of the invented English in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon’s charming, flawed and exhausting new novel:

bik (Yiddish: bull) – doorman
latke (Yiddish: potato cake) – 1. police cap 2. policeman
noz (Yiddish: nose) – policeman
shammes (Yiddish: assistant to rabbi, beadle) – policeman
sholem (Yiddish: peace) – gun
shoyfer (Yiddish: horn) – cell phone
shtarker (Yiddish: strong man, strong arm) – gangster; hard man

Yiddish, it turns out, has not said its last word: it is still involved in the business of coinages and slippages. Live Yiddish is the happy invention of this novel. And it is an invention that necessitates, and is caused by, an outlandish back story: an atom bomb fell on Berlin in 1946; the battle for Israel in 1948 was won by the Arabs; three million Jews were got out of Europe in time to escape the Nazis and are now living in the Federal District of Sitka, in Alaska, which granted them temporary asylum. Now, in 2007, the district is about to revert to the State of Alaska again. Strange times to be a Jew, runs the book’s refrain; strange times, too, to be Meyer Landsman, a detective, and the book’s central character.

Chabon’s writing has always preyed and played on traditionally disparaged forms, the pulp of fiction, with an unfashionable and unmodernist pleasure in plot: in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) it was the superhero comic; in his novella The Final Solution (2004) it was the Sherlock Holmes detective story. In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, his fourth adult novel, he plays with two genres: the counterfactual, derived from Philip K. Dick; and the noir thriller, derived from Chandler and Hammett. The counterfactual is all in the background. The thriller is all in the foreground. The thematic link between the two is the endlessly precarious nature of Jewishness.

Two years ago, then, Landsman left his wife, Bina. He had forced her to have an abortion because there was a possibility that the baby, nicknamed Django, might be abnormal. And then he left her: ‘It was not that he couldn’t live with the guilt. He just couldn’t live with it and Bina, too.’ Then, last spring, his sister Naomi crashed her plane into a mountain and died. Finally, at the moment when the story starts, in a room in the Hotel Zamenhof, where Landsman is living, a man who called himself Emanuel Lasker is found murdered. Lasker was a heroin addict, using tefillin as tourniquets. It turns out that he is Mendel Shpilman, the son of the Verbover rabbi – the Verbovers being an invented sect of Orthodox Chassids, and also the most powerful mob family in Sitka. Shpilman, however, was also rumoured to have been the Tzaddik Ha-Dor: the righteous man, born to each generation, who has the potential to become the Messiah.

What has happened is this: a group of maniacal Orthodox Jews have hatched a plot, in league with the neocon US government, to rebuild the Jewish Temple – having first blown up the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. They will then announce Mendel Shpilman as the new Messiah. At a remote rehab centre in non-Jewish Alaska, they have tried to get Shpilman off dope. But he escaped, aided by Naomi. In revenge, they killed Naomi, and went after Shpilman. But Shpilman’s killer turns out to be someone else entirely.

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