216 of 235 people found the following review helpful
What it means to be Jewish in 21st century Britain - with added self-analysis
, 23 Sept. 2010
This review is from: The Finkler Question (Hardcover)
Julian Treslove is a middle aged former BBC radio producer now working as a professional look alike but quite who he looks like varies. Although never married, he has fathered two sons, neither of whom he sees regularly. Dismissed from the BBC for being too morbid on his late night Radio 3 programme, he is given to depressing levels of self-analysis in his small flat that's not quite in Hampstead. What Treslove lacks is a sense of belonging and this, he notes his Jewish friends have in spades, particularly his old school friend and rival, the best-selling philosopher and TV personality, Sam Finkler. Treslove, by contrast, always feels on the outside of life.
When the book starts Treslove is again excluded as Finkler and their mutual friend and former teacher, Libor Sevcik, an elderly Jewish Czech, have both been widowed. Although the two Jewish friends have differing political views on Zionism, Treslove sees them united in their Jewishness and their sense of mutual loss. So much does Treslove want to be like his friend Finkler, a term he uses to describe all Jewish people, and for a range of other amusing reasons, when he is attacked on the way home from Libor's flat one night, he is convinced that it is an anti-Semitic attack and that Treslove is, in fact, a Finkler himself and pursues the task of answering `The Finkler Question': what does it mean to be Jewish in the 21st century?
It's not hard to see why this book has caught the attention of this year's Man Booker judges who have short-listed it for the prize. It touches on a number of compelling subjects including middle age insecurity, male competition and friendship, death, infidelity, multiculturalism and of course religious faith and the implications of this on nation states. On top of that, it is beautifully written and often very funny both in a gentle way and at times in an angry and urgent manner. It reads very much like some of the works of the great American novelist Philip Roth, but with a more British dark humour to it, and that is high praise indeed in my book.
And yet, and yet.....
The problem I had with it is that it's a very difficult book to love because the central characters are so loathsome. The most sympathetic is the wise Libor, although arguably he is the most caricature-like of characters in the book. His story though is sad and wholly believable. Finkler himself is ambitious and craves the limelight to a detestable degree and as for Treslove, you just want to shake him into action. Given Finkler's character, I find it difficult to believe that he would have any truck with the pathetic Treslove who has taken self-analysis to a level of self-paralysis. Far from wanting to find out how his Jewish conversion was progressing, I found myself thinking more along the lines of `oi vey, he's off again. Enough with the navel gazing already'.
There's an inherent contradiction in arguing that you cannot stereotype a faith and then suggesting that this weight of self-analysis is a `Jewish thing'. Finkler himself joins a movement of ASHamed Jews, against Zionism, and yet while this is an important issue, little is made of the UN's judgements on Israel's actions.
I was left in two minds about it as a book. There's no denying the quality of the writing or the urgency of the subject, but for all the humour, the characters themselves are so dark and unlikeable, that it loses force and the net impact is a very dour read for such a book filled with so much genuine humour. How can this be? Well perhaps that's `The Finkler Question' question.
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