on 13 April 2001
'Operation Shylock' shows Philip Roth writing at his very best. It has all the ingedients you expect from a vintage Roth read: the ferocious humour, the taut style, the obsessive self analysis and the modernist concern with the status of the author. But 'Operation Shylock' is more than a simple rewriting of 'Portnoy's Complaint'. Roth's agonized engagement with his Jewish identity is as powerful as ever, but given breadth in this novel by an examination of the conflicts between Jews and Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories which is by turns tragic and bitterly comic. The two leading characters of this novel are the novelist Philip Roth and the crazed Jewish activist...Philip Roth! The book begins with Roth discovering that he is being impersonated in Jerusalem by a man who is using his physical resemblance to the novelist for strange purposes of his own. By including not only himself but also his double in the book, Roth is able to masterfully explore how Jews might be (literally) in two minds over Israel. While we are enjoying the wonderful farce of Roth's attempts to track down and confront the fake Roth- which reads like Kafka with jokes- we are also taken on a highly intelligent tour of Palestine which always conveys that there are two sides to war in the Middle East. There are many things to admire in this book: the seamless mixing of fact and fiction, clear sighted sketches of aggrieved Palestinians and Holocaust survivors as well as breath takingly wild flights of fantasy. But above all (what is hardest to convey in a review) there is a delight in the possibilities of language to argue a case or to crack jokes, to stir up anger or simply to delight in its own cleverness. Experience it now.
Philip Roth's 1993 novel Operation Shylock is an eminently readable, though undeniably at times confusing, literary mix of (apparent) fact and fiction and a biting satire on human identity (primarily that of Philip Roth). In the book, Roth uses the premise of a relatively traditional, albeit also fantastic, political thriller, but layers on top of this his all too familiar obsessions of the art of the novelist, human mortality and his (potentially contradictory) views on the Jewish question.
For the core narrative of Operation Shylock, Roth narrates as himself, who, recovering from a mental breakdown, travels to Israel to interview a fellow Jewish novelist. Here he discovers that another person, also calling himself Philip Roth, has been touring the country espousing anti-semitic views, effectively in his name. At the same time, the real-life trial of alleged war criminal John (Ivan the Terrible) Demjanjuk is also taking place in Jerusalem. Roth uses these devices, and the associated characters, to develop the novel's themes around the confusion of identity - whether this be that of a war criminal, the Jewish state, or of Roth himself. At the end of the novel Roth suggests that he (the character in the novel) has, in fact, been sent to Israel to gather intelligence for Mossad (the Israeli intelligence service).
Given the apparent blurring of fact and fiction in Operation Shylock, Roth appears to add some clarity as to the basis of the book by declaring at the end that it is a work of fiction. However, Roth has separately claimed that he did actually undertake such a spying mission for Mossad (presumably another piece of Roth fantasy).
Operation Shylock is undoubtedly a hugely ambitious book from a conceptual standpoint, and it could be argued, a provocatively complex and deliberately confusing one. Roth has tried his hand at such fact/fiction blurring in other of his novels. The Plot Against America, for example, arguably achieves such a mixture more effectively, and certainly in a more straightforward manner. However, despite the undoubted flaws in Operation Shylock, it is a book (novel) well worth reading.
on 19 September 2010
One of the joys of starting to read a novel by Philip Roth is that you do not know what to expect. This one is purportedly autobiographical - but it doesn't seem so likely to be genuinely autobiographical as, say, Patrimony (about his father). There's the author writing some years after the date at which the book is set, Philip Roth as protagonist, then another "Philip Roth" who is the double of Philip Roth who turns up in Jerusalem at the same time as the "real" Roth, with a bizarre plan for saving the Jews from their next nuclear conflict with the Arabs...and there are encounters with a friend from Roth's student days 30 years on, who has - apparently (though is it all a front?) - become a paranoid zealot, taking on the griefs of his father - and with Mossad (who orginally turn up in disguised form).
All in all, a tour de force. But, for me, not such an enjoyable tour de force as some of his earlier work (Our Gang is a great political satire). For the theme of encountering a double, Jose Saramago's The Double is more entertaining (though this is good); for the rights and wrongs of the Middle East, probably best not to seek out fiction! Worth reading, but may be best to start elsewhere with Roth...for example My Life as A Man.
on 3 March 2007
Roth's prose is unquestionably of the top tier, superbly accurate and well written. I have to admit, however, to not finding him especially funny, as other admirers profess to. He is witty, yes, and frequently comic, and for the most part amusing, but actually funny - well only just. No part of this book made me do anything more than smile. Furthermore, the self-referentiality of using himself as the central character can grate at times, although in compensation, it does allow him to explore difficult themes (of Jewish identity and its relation to the Israeli state) in a way that made immediate, personal sense to me as a reader. This is the triumph of Roth's writing here: a rendering of complexities that never collapses back into reassuring political simplicities.
on 20 January 2016
It's sometimes hard to read his prose but it's almost always worth the effort.It would be interesting to hear the reaction with in Israel's right wing to the novel's argument on the need for Zionism to reverse itself because its historical justification is now. outmoded.
Also, on the generally bogus role of religion for other than the fearful and desperate-
"There was also some question as to whether he was sane, or was entering that stage of chronic ailing known as the Hysterical Search for the Miraculous Cure.............If so, beware, astrology lies just around the corner. Worse, Christianity. Yield to the hunger for medical magic and you will be carried to the ultimate limit of human foolishness, to the most preposterous of all the great pipe dreams devised by ailing mankind, to the Gospels, to the pillow of our leading dolorologist, the voodoo healer Dr. Jesus Christ."
on 24 October 2007
I read this book over five years ago, and have read several Philip Roth books since, but this book made such an impression on me, that I still remember specific scenes, plots, and statements from it. This book, although often quite forgotten in the extensive bibliography of Roth, is one of the writer's best offerings. It shows Roth at his strongest, in terms of originality, depth, and insight into his own internal dilemmas. This book is great because it does not just simply tell a story; it makes a powerful, dangerous and fascinating contribution to the world of politics, and it does so elegantly, cleverly and with unmatched sophistication. For want of other words, this book is important.
A work of formidable intelligence and, as with all his books, beautifully written. He has a huge vocabulary - must be up there with the greatest wordsmiths. A majestic symphony of words creates a novel which is informative, enriching, entertaining and lingering.
on 23 September 2012
This is an impressive book and yet .... It didn't click with me. At times it didn't seem credible; it seemed complicated for no good reason. Sorry, only 3 stars this time.
on 9 April 2016
How tedious Roth is. Obsessed with sex like a 15 year old.
I thought Portnoy's complaint was funny 25 years ago, but this just gets sooooo boring/
on 30 November 2007
In outlining my response to reading Operation Shylock (OS) and perhaps in doing so suggesting why you the reader should read this book, I must declare my position in relation to the work of Philip Roth - I am a big fan. However, OS is a book that I have put off reading for a sometime simply because the blurb on the cover and the snippet of reviews that I read suggested that its subject matter would not appeal to me. Now that I have read OS my caveat emptor to any potential reader is not to be put off by any preconceived notions as to what the book is about.
The novel depicts a complex story line beginning with Roth as himself suffering from what appears to be a sleeping pill, halcion, induced depression. He then discovers that there is a double Philip Roth in Israel pretending to be him Philip Roth, the writer. Against advice Roth goes to Jerusalem to track down his alto ego and at the same time conduct an interview with an Israeli novelist. This leads to a three-day tour of Israel and Palestine where Roth encounters an old school friend, takes an interest in the trial of Ivan Demjanjuk, he is duped by a shady character, Smilesburger, and above all he discovers that his alter ego has a scheme in hand to repatriate Israelis to Europe in order to avoid a grave disaster between Jews and Palistinians.
True there are many strands to this novel but Roth weaves them together brilliantly making the book highly readable and enjoyable. To point out a few of the issues that makes this novel worthwhile reading: the novel is a spy come political thriller, against the backdrop of some serious themes it bristles with commedy (it made me laugh out loud), it is an exploration of identity, it examines the position of the artist in society and the autonomy of the artist to create a work of art and it dares to question the significance of the state and the relationship of the individual to the state.
Roth's novel is also about the perils of being a celebrity. In terms of some of the issues surrounding Roth's impersonator, although on a much less troublesome scale, pushing 15 years since its publication the novel could not be more relevant to the times in which we live. A time occupied by a plethora of wanabes. Here is Roth to his impersonator "Since I apparently don't 'take in' what a personage I am, you have kindly taken it upon yourself to go about this great personage for me" Dosen't this ring a bell about life today with TV programmes such as Stars in their Eyes, The X Factor and Celebrity come Dancing.
Yet on another level, perhaps about the aesthetics of the novel in general, I enjoyed what appears to me to be Roth's teasing out of issues such as the distinction between fact and fiction, and the characters and the author who creates them. By way of an example after a telephone conversation with the Israeli novelist, whom he is about to visit to interview, Roth reflects on his growing obsession with his imposter by imagining some of his past fictitious characters coming to life in Roth's own image. He tells us: "it was nonetheless another ridiculously subjective attempt to convert into a mental event of the kind I was professionally all too familiar with what had once been established as all too objectively real. Its Zukerman, I thought, whimsically, stupidly, escapistly, it's Kepesh, it's Tarnopol and Portnoy - it's all of them in one, broken free of print and mockingly reconstituted as a satirical facsimile of me"
In the hands of a lesser novelist this kind of reflection might be regarded as self indulgence. For me what allows Roth to avoid such an accusation is his narration. One of the outstanding things about Roth's writing is the narrator's voice. In many of his novels, as in this one, Roth manages to achieve a specific tone of voice, relevant to his characters and subject matter, that draws one into the story and keeps one fully engaged with it.
Furthermore, Roth is quite simply a genius with his use of language. In chapter 4, Jewish Mischief, we first meet the character "Zee", George Ziad. Roth use the meeting and ensuing conversation between him and Ziad to, brilliantly, examine the formation of the state of Israel and its continuing existance. The language used to outline this examination pulses with energy as the anger of the dispossed Ziad surfaces. In these passages, Mr Roth's diction and syntax are at once apt, painful, perhaps propagandist and revealing.
The novel is laced with irony, humour and daring. In the chapter, "The Uncontrollability of Real Things", Roth dares to summariese the plot of the novel so far. One would think that such exuberance would invoke the hands of the editor to guide Roth away from repitition. However, in the scheme of things, in this novel, such editorial interference would have been a mistake. In having a summary in the middle of the novel what Roth does brilliantly is to highlight the sometime cruel, sometimes sardonic and sometimes revealing irony at the heart of the novel. Futhermore, it is daring because Roth then continues and turn the spotlight directly upon himself in a critical analysis of the artist and the creative process. It's as if Roth anticipates his critics and pulls the rug from under their feet.
One must not complete a review without acknowledging that there is a serious and painful issue addressed in this novel. Roth's account of Jews experience at Treblinka manages to lay bare some of the horrible conditions and brutality suffered there but he does so without sentimentality or excessive appeal to our emotions. His language here is staid, calm and unadorned. At the same time in some of the passages outlining the Treblinka experience Roth also manages to reveal the complexity of the human condition.
If there is a flaw in this otherwise very good novel, it is this, towards the end of the novel there are some episodes which are quite superfluous. They do not carry the plot any further, develop any of the characters nor extend any themes of the novel. I am thinking, for example, of a passage about an encounter between a Jewish giant and a priest distributing leaflets.
Although this does not rank among Roth's great novels, one leaves such accolade for Portnoy's Complaint, The Human Stain, American Pastoral and above all Sabbath's Theatre; nonetheless Operation Shylock is a book I would cite as an example of a complete novel. Philip Roth explores some big ideas, the theme of identity is universal, Roth is a master with his use and control of language, there are fully rounded and memorable characters, all this and Roth still manages to entain us with some subtle commedy. This is a tour deforce - read and enjoy it.