The novel supposes that in 1940 the American Congress had passed the Sitka Settlement Act to allow the persecuted Jews of Europe to seek refuge, for an interim period of sixty years, in the newly created autonomous `federal district' of Sitka on Baranof Island, which my atlas tells me is a narrow sliver, about 100 miles long and 25 miles wide, in the south-eastern tail of Alaska. But it was a kind of ghetto: to appease the American public, the Act prohibited the refugees from moving off the island. A trickle of Jews, mainly from Germany and Poland, are supposed to have arrived there soon afterwards, to be joined after the war by a flood of Displaced Persons and other Jews who could not go to Israel, because that state is supposed to have been snuffed out by the Arabs after only three months. After the sixty years were up, Sitka was to `revert' to become part of Alaska and the Jews of Sitka were supposed to find somewhere else to go. By that time Sitka had a population of two million and had acquired a thoroughly Yiddish character, with Yiddish names for shops, districts and public buildings, Yiddish (secular) cops and Yiddish (religious) gangsters - all to the resentment of the original inhabitants of the area, the Tlingit Indian tribe. The book opens as the date of the `Reversion' draws near.
Meyer Landsman is a Yiddish police detective who has not been very effective in the past and now has to solve a murder. That genre is not unfamiliar, nor, especially in American fiction, is the laconic dialogue. But here the text is sprinkled with Yiddish words, whose meaning the non-Yiddish speaker can usually, but not always, work out. Yiddish has many wonderful curses, but sometimes only American four letter words will do. The humour has a Yiddish flavour, and the author's own English is full of wisecracks and of immensely inventive and vivid similes. The setting - especially among the ultra-orthodox `black hats' - is very atmospheric.
Landsman does eventually unravel the murder mystery, though in the process he stumbles into and escapes from some tight corners that cry out to be made into a movie.
It's not always an easy read, partly because of the extreme complexities of the plot, but also because Chabon's narrative technique, for all its humour and raciness, is sometimes more opaque than I think it needs to be. Oh, and there's just one brief and insignificant reference to the Policemen's Union of the title.
Kavalier & Clay is one of my all time favourite books, and when this came out I pounced on it in eager anticipation of a fabulous read. I have to say I was slightly disappointed. Chabon's story telling style is still epic and at times very funny, even in a fairly bleak book like this and there were moments of great beauty and insight that made me light up inside and go 'oooh', but on the whole it was incredibly hard work.
The story revolves around the idea that part of Alaska has been ceded to the dispossessed Jews after WWII on the proviso that they only have it for sixty years and when that time is up they have to find somewhere else to go. The story starts just as the lease is about to expire. Meyer Landsman, a Jewish cop, has made a mess of his life and is living on vodka and cigarettes in a flophouse. A body in the same hostel turns his life around as he races to discover the murderer against the political clock ticking loudly in the background.
The basic cop story is traditional but done with this Jewish Noir twist that makes it extraordinary. It was however, extremely hard work if you are not Jewish or don't know much about Jewish life and lore, which I don't. There were quite a few things I didn't understand and which rather than break the flow and keep looking up every five minutes I decided to hope would become explicable as the book moved on. Some do, some don't, but it was quite frustrating, at times like reading a book in another language altogether.
Because of this it took me a long time to get into the story and I didn't really pick up the pace until nearly half way through. It's testament to Chabon's ability that I stuck with it that long, as with other books I would have been tempted to give up. As it is, the plot pulls you along nicely to the end and things become a lot more understandable as the book goes on.
The central character in this book is a drink dependant, divorced cop, who has problems with authority. So far so hackneyed; but Meyer Landsman's beat is in Sitka, Alaska; a Jewish homeland set up in 1948. Israel as we know it does not exist.
Interested? Well you should be.
Firstly, this is an excellent piece of detective fiction; the plot is intricate and the characters are well rounded and believable. In addition to an excellent story, the action takes in a beautifully realised alternate reality. Landsman's Alaskan homeland feels as though it exists somewhere more solid than in the Michael Chabon's imagination. This is counter-factual story telling at its best.
Chabon's writing style is heavy with metaphor, which I take as a positive but I imagine for some may become wearisome. I did find the novel a little difficult to feel my way into. The author often uses twenty words to describe something when fewer would have sufficed. The novel also contains many Jewish terms. Since I'm not Jewish, I found this broke up the narrative flow as I had to decipher what was meant by a particular word or phrase. As I become used to the style, I found that, like reading the subtitles to a good foreign film, it soon ceased to matter.
Perhaps the book's most remarkable feature is that despite being set in an entirely fictitious world, it deals sensitively with issues facing the Jewish diaspora in this world and the divisions within the holy land. Chabon really seems to have a handle on the strengths and frailties of the Jewish psyche. All of this makes the Yiddish Policemen's Union a memorable piece of crime fiction and a truly exceptional novel.
on 17 January 2011
This is very much Noir-land, as well as being an alternative Jewish homeland where Yiddish is spoken rather than Hebrew. It follows many of the conventions of the detective thriller: the dysfunctional central character has issues with life, authority, stimulants, chess, religion, while his sidekick is less intelligent but stalwart; he is unable to do his job properly because of an interdiction from his boss, who is also his ex-wife; the action of the book takes place in low dives and involves grand conspiracies and human frailty; the detective can sustain a blow to the head and subsequently come to with no permanent damage. And there is even a car chase, of sorts.
Put like this, it makes it sound like I didn't like this book. Nothing could be further from the truth. The plot is definitely genre-fiction and the political stance will undoubtedly anger some people. But the man writes incredible, wonderful, beautiful prose. I don't think I have ever read a book where I stopped so often to re-read and admire a line which had me gasping with admiration or chuckling in amusement. And reading these lines, it struck me that many other writers could have come up with images of similar beauty but they would have overstated them, given them too heavy a treatment. There is a line somewhere where the snow is falling and he says something like "The footprints in the snow outside were as shallow as an angel's". A lesser writer would have spelled it out -the snow is falling so the footprints have been filled with fresh snow, making them look as if a figure with no weight or substance has left its imprint. Chabon suggests this but leaves the reader to fill in the gaps.
There are a lot of Yiddish words in it, but then much of that will be familiar to anyone who has read Leo Rosten, and it is all easily available on Google. As for other aspects of the cultural background, maybe it does make it hard going for goyim like myself but this is why I read books - to find out about things I don't know about!
So, perhaps not the greatest book I've ever read, but certainly a strong candidate for the best written and very entertaining.
Jewish culture has always interested me. All the Jewish characters and actors and writers and comedians on television got to play with language in such intriguing ways when I was a kid, with that surly sense of humour, that I admired them so much: Jackie Mason, Shatner & Nimoy, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Richard Belzer. And I love the sound of Yiddish. Meshugginer is one of my favourite words ever.
So I approached the Yiddish Policemen's Union with much joy, knowing that that wonderful take on life would be written so well here. Especially as Michael Chabon is one of those authors who always turns out something good.
The book is an alternate history peace in which Jewish refugees are not given Israel to live in at the end of the war, but instead move to Alaska. Meyer Landsman investigates the death of a young man with a strange charisma, and discovers that there is a threat to the Jewish nation and to the world, that neatly mirrors certain events in our world. Also, he has to contend with his ex-wife being his superior.
Part of the book is very much a detective story of the kind Dashiell Hammett or Robert Crais might write, but the alternate history and the binding of this with Jewish identity and culture draws the work a little higher. That there is a conspiracy at work is a little too formulaic, I think, but helps draw the novel to its conclusion, with its hope for the future.
The book has a great sense of humour, it's sharply written, with a good sense of location and living, breathing characters. Is it a detective novel with delusions of grandeur? Is it a literary novel that apes the popular style and deconstructs it to bring out the truth? Probably a bit of both, though I suspect that based on the interviews and reading lists in the back of book, that Chabon enjoys writing detective stories.
Either way, it's a fine read and well worth your time.
Seldom will you have an opportunity to read a book that offers so much fine writing, imaginative fancy dropped in lightly to expand your mind, wit, and examples of how we are our own worst enemy by assuming we know what's going on rather than getting the facts. If you are Jewish and know Yiddish, you'll have the extra benefit of many good-humored, self-directed jokes: In places, you'll think you've stepped into a Neil Simon comedy. And there are lots of nods to fine literature throughout the book to keep the serious reader entertained.
To give this book a conventional book review does Mr. Chabon a disservice. How can I best summarize The Yiddish Policemen's Union? Expect the wildly unexpected.
Most novels try to fit tightly into a genre. By following certain conventions, readers have an easier time following what's going on and are soon basking in reflected pleasure from other books they've read in the genre. If you mash together genres instead as Mr. Chabon has done, the results can be chaotic, humorous, and revealing about the flaws in the genres. This book combines so many genres that you'll probably find yourself losing track of how many are referenced in one place or other.
The Yiddish Policemen's Union isn't one of those books that you should read quickly. You should savor each conversational exchange, each scene, and each historical, social, cultural or biblical reference as you might savor a fine wine. Sip slowly, stop, and experience as many flavors as you can.
I have two warnings however.
If you are looking for a book that's exactly like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, you've been misinformed. The same author is involved, but the two books are quite different.
If you think you are going to read a conventional murder mystery-police procedural, you've set your sights in the wrong direction. Yes, there are crimes, investigations, and mysteries, but they aren't the heart of the book's appeal. If you apply only that lens, you'll probably complain that the second half of the book doesn't work very well. Putting together all those genres means that the murder mystery-police procedural aspect cannot proceed as smoothly as you are accustomed to experiencing.
To me, the book's greatest feature is the variety of ways that Mr. Chabon communicates his ultimate message that redemption is available for us all . . . if we simply get busy and seek redemption.
Enjoy a great read!
Like quite a few other reviewers, I read this after having first come to Michael Chabon through 'Kavalier and Clay' - which I loved - and was then rather disappointed by this novel. It is set around a 'what if' scenario - following World War II, a temporary Jewish homeland was set up in Alaska rather than Israel. The story picks up decades later, when the settlement is about to 'revert' - which I understood to mean it would become part of the USA again and no longer Jewish. This was never very clearly explained. Most of the story centres around a policeman with a sorrowful personal life (like most fictional policemen) investigating a murder that takes place in his own apartment building.
My first criticism of the book is that it is very hard to understand. The text is full of Jewish words that a non-Jewish reader like me doesn't necessarily understand. I don't mind authors using words from other languages in this way, but they need to explain them within the text or put them into a glossary - Chabon does neither, meaning I couldn't understand what some sentences meant. That's a fundamental problem with a book for me. It's also very overwritten and wordy, making it hard to engage with the story and characters underneath the purple prose. The whole set up of 'Sitka' and 'reversion' were never explained well in the text, meaning I struggled to understand the context and spent most of the book feeling like I'd missed something. A short foreword giving the background of the fictional set up in this story would have enabled me to enjoy the story rather than try to piece together the underlying history from the odd aside in the narrative.
One of the reasons I enjoyed Kavalier and Clay was that I really liked the characters and identified with them from early on in the book. I didn't feel I could especially like or identify with the characters in this novel. The plot is slow, although it does have some compelling sections which I quite enjoyed - I found the middle the strongest and most compelling part, which is where most of the action happens. But there's a lot of introverted gloom around the misery of the main character's personal life which I could have done without - it got dull very quickly. It's not what you would expect from a police story.
I also found it baffling that words were used in the narrative and the dialogue which I was always taught were offensive to Jewish people. Coming from Jewish characters and presumably a Jewish author, this seemed odd. I really disliked the constant use of one term in particular - which was used to refer to every character instead of the more normal 'man/woman/child'. It seemed to patronise and dehumanise the characters and it made no sense coming from the viewpoint of a fellow Jew and someone who was desperate for his people to retain their state.
There is the kernel of a good story hiding in this weighty tome, but in my opinion it's not worth the effort of reading the whole thing to get it out. The concept is interesting and lot could have been done with it, and some sections are exciting. But the writing style obliterates the potential for a thrilling plot and engaging characters. Not one I'd recommend - but do try 'Kavalier and Clay' - it's a league above this one in my view.
on 22 July 2007
Readers who enjoy mysteries will find much to like in THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION. This includes a flawed but likeable protagonist, an involving story that unfolds with surprising turns, fully realized secondary characters, and terse but funny dialogue. While there may be better mysteries, TYPU shows that the gifted Michael Chabon is very comfortable working in this genre.
But if, like me, you don't really enjoy mysteries? Then, what you get in TYPU is an example of an exceptional literary talent content to work within a limited form. Yes, in reading the reviews on this forum in the States, I find people who see great originality. "Chabon set his murder mystery among black hat Jews." "He combined a mystery with a provocative alternative history." But can't someone with Chabon's talent push the boundaries of the form? In my opinion, this didn't happen.
I've read THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY, WONDER BOYS, and THE FINAL SOLUTION. Like most people, I think ADVENTURES will last. But, I also think that the element that made ADVENTURES great--not the terrific writing but the presence of powerful and disturbing dark forces throughout the book--is missing in WB, TFS, and TYPU. Instead, what Chabon creates in these three novels are genre books--a campus novel and two mysteries. For Chabon, ADVENTURES might have been the great book that emerged before he settled into a wonderful but lesser pattern. You see, in his later books, the talent doesn't overflow to create something new and unprecedented. Rather, the talent produces, say, Meyer Landsman in TYPU and Grady Tripp in WB, who are sympathetic and likable losers that lurch from calamity to calamity, but still get the girl.
Early in TYPU, there were also spots that seemed a tad long. Then, I found myself ticking the similes and metaphors, which, in retrospect, is a terrific way to appreciate what Chabon can accomplish. Here are some that I ticked in Chapter 31.
o "It's not light oozing through so much as a residue of light, a day haunted by the memory of the sun."
o "An invisible gas clouds his thoughts, exhaust from a bus left parked with its engine running in the middle of his brain."
o "When he comes back, he looks like his sinuses have been pulled out through his ears and he blames Landsman for it."
Chabon is definitely a writer to watch. But is he only seeking that sweet spot in the market, where literary talent is content to achieve a best-seller?
on 9 May 2009
A wonderful imagined world: Chabon creates a dense and convincing piece of alternative history, transplanting the now almost lost world of Yiddish-speaking culture to the Pacific North-West, where chess cafés and Zionist refugees meet Tlingit Native Americans and a cold, unforgiving climate. The fictional Sitka created is satisfyingly multi-layered: it convinces not merely in the present tense but also has the requisite allusions to a different past (part of the fun is picking out clues as to how political history differed from that in reality - the war ended in 1946 with an atom bomb on Berlin, for instance - but there are also little cultural allusions that sound right, everyone in Sitka having shared childhood memories of a cartoon character called Shnapish the Dog). In recreating this Yiddish-speaking world, of course, Chabon is also lamenting its loss - loss due first and foremost to the Holocaust, but then to the creation of Israel as a Hebrew-speaking state that, consciously or not, drowned out Yiddish diaspora culture. The undertone of loss suits the detective genre perfectly: the shrugged shoulders and outstretched hands that are so characteristic a Yiddish gesture fit perfectly with the tropes of the hard-boiled detective novel, the battered shamus trying to retain some sort of decency in the face of overwhelming evidence about human greed and fallibility. Like the best of Chandler, it's a completely consistent parallel universe, created through style and stylisation; like the best of Chandler, you may not always follow what's going on, but you won't care. Great fun, with an undertone of lament: the bittersweet note of so much Yiddish culture.
[A note regarding the need or not for background knowledge, which comes up in some other reviews. You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy it (I'm not); you also don't need massive knowledge of Judaism in advance. Important doctrinal issues, such as what's meant to happen when the awaited Messiah finally arrives, or the nature of the "eruv", the ritual enclosure within which Sabbath rules are different, are all spelled out for you. You also don't need knowledge of Yiddish or Hebrew. The more you know, the more jokes you get - for instance, the way that "shamus" for "detective" is rendered as "shammes" puns on "shabbes", Sabbath; and the fact that everyone's mobile phone is a make called Shoyfer alludes to the shofar, the horn blown in synagogue on certain occasions - but there are plenty that need no special background information. If you've ever seen "Fiddler on the Roof" you've got more than enough advance knowledge; and if you haven't, don't let that stop you.]
It is clear that Michael Chabon had a great deal of fun writing this novel, partly because it allowed him to create the Sitka District of Alaska, a make-believe alternative to the state of Israel that assumes that the Jews lost its 1948 War of Independence and have been assimilated into an Alaskan temporary homeland until a long term solution can be found. After 60 years this temporary solution is coming to an end with Reversion, the date when the territory being handed back to the Native American Tlingits, just around the corner.
Its central character, Meyer Landsman, an alcoholic police detective with a particular liking for slivivitz, apologises to his ex-wife for spoiling her Saturday night, her retort is that her Saturday night is like a microwave burrito, `It's hardly possible to ruin something that was so bad to begin with'.
There are many characters, almost exclusively male, in the story that begins on the first page. A body is discovered in a dingy hotel, its signs in Esperanto, where Landsman, who has `the brains of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker', has lived since his wife left him.
The corpse, Emmanuel Lasker, had just injected drugs and was playing chess. The single shot killing suggests a professional killing. The interrupted chess game reminds Landsman of his father, a Holocaust survivor, who forced his son the play the game with the result that he now hates it. However, the pieces are set out in a puzzling way as if it holds a clue. Chess is, of course, the only game allowed on the Sabbath in Sitka.
For a non-Jew, this book is hard going as almost every character is Jewish, the dialogue is supposedly in Yiddish and, whilst some of the words are not to difficult to work out, many are not and no explanations are given. Swearing is in `American'.
When the author is on song he is masterly, Sitka at night is `an orange smear, a compound of fog and the light of sodium-vapour lamps. It has the translucence of onions cooked in chicken fat'. References to the food, sounds and smells of Sitka abound, `The Filipino-style Chinese donut, or shtekeleh, is the great contribution of the District of Sitka to the food lovers of the world'. A motorbike revs up like "the flatulence of a burst balloon streaking across the living room and knocking over a lamp." Jewish girls "sing Negro spirituals with Yiddish lyrics that paraphrase Lincoln and Marx." The Jews in Sitka are referred to as `the Frozen Chosen'.
Landsman's police partner is his cousin, Berko Shemets, Tlingit Indian and Jew in equal amounts, brought up in the tribe but now regarding himself as Jewish. Before long the dead man is found to be the Tzaddik Ha-Dor, the man born into every generation who is able to become the Messiah, if that generation is worthy. Stories are told of miracles wrought by the victim who ended up an addict, making a living from chess. How and why is revealed in this story. Bit by bit, Landsman and Berko find their families drawn into the investigation.
I found that Chabon was too carried away by his metaphor-enriched language, piling one on top of one another so often that I began to feel a need for oxygen. The best writers know how to write, but also when to stop.
What is very well done is the ways in which the postwar world has changed, Berlin was attacked by nuclear missiles in in 1946, there has been war in Cuba and Orson Welles's film adaptation of Conrad's Heart of Darkness are all obliquely referenced.
As neither a Jew nor a chessplayer, although I understood the reference in the corpse's name, there was much in this book that passed me by and I suspect that I will not be alone in this. By the final page, I felt rather like the guest at a party, knowing no one else, who stands listening to the never-ending jokes and reminiscences of the other guests.
This is a clever novel but not one that will remain in this reader's head.