The Frozen Ones
In Michael Chabon’s brilliant Yiddish noir novel, Israel was never created, Jews are living on skid row in Alaska, and their potential Messiah is a heroin addict who’s just been shot.
Sixty years have passed since the defeat of the Zionists in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. With the Reversion looming in the Federal District of Sitka, the temporary Jewish homeland in Alaska, the Jews are facing yet another dispersal.
Meanwhile, someone has put a bullet in the brain of the occupant of room 208 in a local flophouse. The stiff is a young yid whom the ultra orthodox Verbover Jews believe is the Tzaddik Ha-Dor, the righteous of the generation – that is, a potential Messiah. As his neighbour Meyer Landsman, a downbeat, Slivovitz-swigging homicide detective, puts it, these are strange times to be a Jew.
This, in short, is the premise of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon’s alternative-history novel, which spans and stretches several genres. It is a noir detective story and a paranoia-riddled parable for contemporary strife. It combines Yiddish sentimentality with a conspiracy narrative and a whodunnit that will have you eagerly flicking through its thrilling 411 pages.
Like Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (in which Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and turns America into a fascist state), The Yiddish Policemen’s Union uses the ‘what if?’ device to blend reality with imaginative revisionism. In the early 1940s, the US Department of the Interior under Franklin D Roosevelt considered a proposal for Alaska as a settlement for displaced European Jews. In Chabon’s hands, this speck of history spirals into a surreal and outlandish scenario.
In the book, Jews have migrated to Alaska in several waves. The early settlers, the Polar Bears, were ‘utopians, which meant that they saw imperfection everywhere they looked’. In 1948, after the three-month-old republic of Israel was crushed, the Sitka Settlement was granted interim status as a federal district. Now, 60 years on, ‘There are still Jews living in Jerusalem, as there always have been. A few. They were there long before the Zionists started showing up, their trunks packed with Hebrew dictionaries, agricultural manuals, and plenty of trouble for everyone.’
The Alaskan Jews have had no delusions of making the icecaps bloom. Instead, it seems the entire secular population is on skid row, living in rundown hotels and crammed flats, while the retrograde religious ‘black hats’ have recreated the Eastern European villages from which they were uprooted. According to Landsman, their home, Verbov Island, is a ‘Disney shtetl’ full of ‘no-good yids’. The blackhats also use Mafioso tactics to influence police investigations and suspensions.
Against the wish of his new supervisor, who also happens to be his ex-wife and the love of his life, Landsman and his cousin and partner, the half-Tlingit Berko Shemets, begin to investigate the case of the murdered junkie and chess prodigy of room 208 at Hotel Zamenhof. Landsman has been living in this flophouse, in which all directional signs and labels are written in Esperanto, for nine months. With a murder having been committed only an elevatoro-ride away, he feels obliged to look into the fate of the young man, who used tefillin, the leather straps religious Jews tie around their arms during morning prayers, to shoot up heroin.
Throughout the book, Chabon spins an outlandish mesh of plots and language games with an array of eccentric characters whose interlocked fates require readers to take on a detective eye of their own. Each chapter is at once perfectly contained and full of loose ends. Chabon has a knack for smart chapter endings and for introducing characters with a whirlwind of metaphors. Take Dennis Brennan, a story-hungry American reporter with ‘larval white fingers’ and ‘little eyes, the colorless blue of skimmed milk’ whose Yiddish, learnt from ‘some pompous old German’, sounds like ‘a sausage recipe with footnotes’. He finally asks, in English, ‘Who died?’ ‘A yid in a predicament’, Berko tells him. ‘Dog bites man.’
The ‘frozen chosen’ don’t speak modern Hebrew but rather a Yiddish which has been influenced by 60 years of living in an ice-cold climate in a godforsaken corner of the world. The result reads like a cross between Raymond Chandler and Isaac Bashevis Singer. In Sitka, a mobile phone is a shoyfer (the horn used in Jewish ceremonies), a gun is a sholem (meaning peace), and a policeman is a shammes (the word for a Synagogue sexton).
Other phenomena are described with such realistic and minute detail that, in the end, it seems highly unlikely Chabon should have dreamt them up. Take the shtekeleh, a ‘Filipino-style Chinese donut’ which can be found neither in the Philippines nor in China, and is ‘not quite sweet, not quite salty’. Naturally, the joint that makes the best donut in town is the favourite hangout of a policeman like Landsman, but, being a complete stranger to platitudes, Chabon cannot have his hero dunking a plain donut. Instead he devotes half a page to a mouth-watering description of the shtekeleh, so that it is impossible to imagine it doesn’t, in fact, exist at all. Yet an internet search for the delicacy brings up just a stream of references to…The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.
Wrapped into the surreal dystopian landscape that Chabon moulds, there are some very recognisable ideas taken straight out of the real world. The scorn of the secular Landsman for the secluded orthodox Jews, whom he sees as parasitical and wielding too much power, evokes the relation between the secular and the orthodox in contemporary Israel. And behind the book’s ornate language and series of crushed dreams – Landsman’s marriage, Berko’s yearning to be accepted as a Jew, the aspirations of the Polar Bear pioneers, the tenuous homeland whose Messiah couldn’t take the pressure – is the persistent notion: Be it Israel or Alaska, the Jewish people can ultimately only be safe in a land they can call their own.
Yet Landsman, our hard-boiled hero, is ‘tired of hearing about the promised land and the inevitable bloodshed required for its redemption’. He says: ‘I don’t care what supposedly got promised to some sandal-wearing idiot whose claim to fame is that he was ready to cut his own son’s throat for the sake of a hare-brained idea. I don’t care about red heifers and patriarchs and locusts. A bunch of old bones in the sand. My homeland is in my hat. It’s in my ex-wife’s tote bag.’
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon is published by Fourth Estate. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)