Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

The Yiddish Policemen's Union
Michael Chabon

The Yiddish Policeman's Union is the answer to a very difficult question:

Does there exist a book that is simply too Jewish?

Oi vey! This might be the one.

But, once you get past all the shlemiels, shaydls and shtinkers Michael Chabon has crafted an interesting, if maddeningly incomplete, narrative.

I say interesting because Chabon has taken a historical footnote and supposed that it actually happened. In this case, Chabon takes the controversial proposal made by Harold Ickes in 1940 that a portion of Alaska be portioned out to Jewish refugees trying to escape the expansion of Nazi Germany. Ickes' Alaska proposal was very real, but it was shot down in the U.S. Senate and European Jews were left to their own devices for another eight years before the creation of the state of Israel. In Chabon's world, thousands flood the icy confines of Baranof Island and over-populate the tiny Russian settlement of Sitka (which becomes a seething metropolis of two million souls) which then goes on to host the 1977 World's Fair (the pinnacle of the Sitka settlement, apparently). As well, there exists constant friction between the Sitka Jews and the Tlingit natives in the area.

I say incomplete because Chabon offers up information about this alternate reality like Ebenezer Scrooge offers a two pence raise on Christmas Eve. Chabon supposes that Israel was indeed created in 1948 but was subsequently wiped off the map within six weeks during the Arab-Israeli War. Therefore, it is the state of Israel that is relegated to the status of footnote and the Alaskan proposal that becomes the defining event for post-war Jews.

Trouble is, the Sitka Settlement is still on American soil and the Ickes proposal was simply a 60 year land lease and the narrative takes place five weeks prior to Reversion. Since the holocaust in Chabon's world was nowhere near as devastating as the one that occurred in reality, worldwide attitudes toward Jews haven't changed much. America (and the Tlingit) very much wants the Jews (or the Frozen Chosen as they are referred to in the novel) out of the Sitka Settlement, forcing the Jews back into their centuries old diaspora where pogroms an ghettos are still very much a reality.

Sounds cool (in a alternate-history way, not in the anti-Semitic way), right?

Well it is.

Except that Chabon only gives out tantalizingly few details about the geo-political situation despite the fact that they become important toward the end of the book. His story focuses on a loser police detective in Sitka who is investigating the murder of a heroin junkie who may or may not have been Messiah (Tzaddik Ha-Dor). The investigation, which begins in the sleaziest fleabag hotel in Sitka blows up into an international incident involving extremist Zionists bent on reclamation of Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Arabs and, of course, chess.

While the primary narrative was alright (but again, incomplete) I was far more interested in the world that Chabon had created. I wanted more information about the state of the world in his alternate 2007. He mentions the Third Russian Republic and the existence of a country called Irkutsk, which raised all sorts of questions about this alternative world and its relationship with the board game Risk. Apparently the Atomic Bomb was indeed dropped on Berlin at the end of World War II (1946). He noted that the major players in the Middle East were Egypt and Persia (!?!) and that Manchuria existed as an autonomous nation, presupposing that China has fractured into another "Warring States" period. There was something called the "Cuban War," JFK married Marilyn Monroe and Orson Welles completed his opus Heart of Darkness. In one flight of fancy that is not too far off from the truth, America is ruled by right-wing evangelical Christian zealots.

I wanted to know more about this world. What of Japan? What happened with them at the end of the war? Or Korea. Or Greece. Two major international crises that followed the war. How did they play out? Or the United Kingdom or France or Germany or Africa or Greenland. The little tidbits of history Chabon drops are like bread crumbs for a starving man. I was insatiable for information about this intriguing world. So much so that I often lost interest in the primary narrative.

This was all too much for me who would have much preferred a travelogue through Chabon's world at some point in the narrative so that I could place these Alaskan Jews into some sort of political and historical context. This would have really eased my mind about what I was reading instead of constantly trying to guess about what had gone on in the world over the prior 60 years. Alas, Chabon focuses on telling his story of crime, justice and redemption at a personal level and I can't really fault him for that. It's his story and he can tell it any way he wants to and frankly, he does tell it very well (and in Yiddish, too), although it begins to sound a little familiar once you break it down...

Meyer Landsman is a hard-boiled cop in a world full of Raymond Chandler characters (if Raymond Chandler characters carried monikers such as Mendel or Yossele). He is instantly detestable and lovable but prone to making really bad decisions that somehow work out in his favor. Berko, his Tlingit-turned-Jew partner, is a metaphor for the topsy-turvy politics of this barren northern settlement and Bina, Landsman's ex-wife and current boss is a careerist cop who plays by the book. A nice little Harry Potter-esque triad of good guys to fight against Slytherin Hou... I mean the Verbover Jews.

Anyway, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a good book but left me needing more in terms of geo-politics. I suspect that says a lot more about me than it does about this book. So read it yourself and get back to me about what you thought because I'm still day dreaming about Shiite/Sunni conflicts in Arab controlled Palestine and their global implications.

Yes. I'm a nerd.


Chiba Chiba Y'all said...

I control f'd for chandler ;)

Angling Saxon said...

Hi, just found your blog and am amazed at how much you've written about these books. Do you think you might put up a post someday about how you chose the books you did?

Also, as a fellow Canlit aficionado, well...where the heck's Alice Munro in here? (heh heh, I keed).

Ryan said...

Living in Hualien, choice has little to do with the books I read. It's more a case of availability. That being said, I promise, the next crappy book I read, I'll write about where my books come from and what happens to them once I finish them.

I've read Alice Munro, just not this year. She hasn't crossed my paths in a few years now.

Angling Saxon said...

Off topic: I lived in Taiwan in the 90s, and have even been to Hualien. Twice. I found your site via a post you made on Forumosa, though my handle there is not the same as the one I'm using to comment here (I don't blog; it turns out you need to be logged into some sort of online-ish account somewhere, so I used a gmail account I had kicking around).

Anyway, great stuff, very enjoyable reading.

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