In chains all that was left of freedom was life, just existence; but to exist without choice was the same as death. -Bernard Malamud, The Fixer
In this National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, Bernard Malamud presents a fictionalized account of a notorious anti-Semitic incident, the arrest and eventual trial, following a great outcry in the West, of Mendel Beilis in pre-Revolutionary Kiev. Beilis was accused of murdering a Christian boy, despite evidence pointing toward the boy's own mother. After being held from 1911 to 1913, he was finally brought to trial, where he was exonerated.
In this novel the protagonist is Yakov Bok, a nominally Jewish handyman ("fixer")--nominally because he has abandoned his Jewish beliefs for a Spinoza influenced kind of "free thinking"--leaves his village after being cuckolded by his wife. Eventually ending up in Kiev, he one day comes upon a man collapsed in the street and decides to help him, despite noticing that he is wearing a Black Hundreds pin (symbol of a vicious anti-Semitic organization). The man, who turns out to be a local merchant who was merely drunk, offers Yakov a job managing his brickyard, not realizing that he is Jewish. Yakov accepts, despite much trepidation, goes to work under an assumed name, Yakov Ivanovitch Dologushev, and moves into an apartment in an area forbidden to Jews.
Once on the job he runs afoul of : the merchant's daughter, whose sexual advances he deflects; local boys, who he he chases out of the factory yard; and the employees, who he warns about stealing bricks. These seemingly petty disagreements prove to have disastrous results when a local boy is found murdered, stabbed repeatedly and drained of blood. Yakov, who the authorities have discovered is Jewish, is accused of committing the murder as a form of ritual killing to harvest Christian blood for use in some imagined rites for Passover celebration :
The ritual murder is meant to re-enact the crucifixion of our dear Lord. The murder of Christian children and the distribution of their blood among Jews are a token of their eternal enmity against Christendom, for in murdering the innocent Christian child, they repeat the martyrdom of Christ.
The victim is one of the boys that Yakov had chased, and both daughter and fellow employees are only too willing to give false testimony against him. The initial prosecutor assigned to the case is relatively friendly, and obviously skeptical about this theory of the case, but he does not last long.
His rivals and replacements try with great brutality to wring a confession from Yakov. In part, they are motivated by an understanding that the evidence they have against him is terribly inadequate : they are determined to keep the case from going to trial. Yakov, on the other hand, recognizes that he if he can just get to a courtroom he has a chance to clear himself, and Jews generally, of this blood libel. There follows a harrowing, years-long, battle of wills, in which Yakov takes on truly heroic dimensions : a simple, non-political, nonbeliever, is transformed before our eyes into a powerful symbol of resistance to anti-Semitism, injustice, tyranny and hatred. By the end of the story he resembles nothing so much as one of the Titans--an Atlas holding the weight of the world on his own shoulders; a Prometheus, having his innards picked out by carrion birds every day; or a Sisyphus, futilely pushing a boulder up a hill every day, only to have it roll back down every night. Yakov too seems sentenced by God to bear a punishment for all mankind, and he too bears up under it with superhuman strength and transcendent nobility. Superficially then it seems to resemble an existentialist novel, but Yakov derives his strength, and the story derives its universality and its power, from his determination to prove his innocence, a determination which would not matter to an existentialist.
Through the culture-consuming hegemony of the movies, Malamud is today best remembered for The Natural, but The Fixer is the book upon which his reputation should rest. It is a great novel; one that deserves a place on the shelf with the works of George Orwell, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Arthur Koestler, and the other great novelists of the Twentieth Century whose theme was the struggle of the individual against the machinations of the State and against the soul-destroying ideological pathologies which undergird totalitarian states.
GRADE : A+