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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Phantasmagorical Operation, 30 Nov. 2007
This review is from: Operation Shylock: A Confession (Paperback)
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.
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Location: Birmingham, UK

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