Murder, Mystery and Chess

21/02/2009

yidThe U.S state of Alaska is famous for its salmon, its forestry industry and its beautiful wilderness.  This land of great, yawning grizzly bears waiting for leaping salmon to join the salmon-pink tongues already in their mouths, the forests of spruce and birch, mammoth glacial drifts moving in melting slow-motion – this wonderland is no longer the exclusive domain for god’s finest natural creations, but has also become (in 1948) home to His chosen people, the Jews.

Such is the starting premise of Michael Chabon’s latest novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which finds a beleagured, desperate population of Jews  settled in Sitka, Alaska.  The book is at once a fantasy of alternate history and a detective novel with more than a shade of noir about its cut, lean sentences.  It is a story whose climax balloons to untenable proportions, but which, for the greater part, provides an entertaining tale of murder, mystery and grizzled old salmon-throated, chess-playing Yids.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a celebration of plot-driven stories.  But it is more than that.  It is as much an homage to the Conan-Doyles and Chandlers of Chabon’s youth as it is another meditation on familiar questions that, according to the author himself, the book still hasn’t answered: identity (of an individual and a people); the relationship between father and son; homelands and exile and language.  As the novel does rely so heavily on exposition and revelation, any discussion on the plot runs the risk of spoiling the surprise, and so I shall do my best to avoid giving you a roadmap to its twists and turns.

Meyer Landsman is a down-beat, alcoholic, secular Jewish detective with the Sitka Central Police Department.  Haunted by the ghosts of a failed marriage, a stillborn son and a dead sister, Landsman is shackled to a fourth burden when the body of a heroin addict is found with a bullet hole in the back of his head.  But things don’t get any better for Landsman when he arrives at work to find his ex-wife  is his new boss and he has been given, along with his partner and cousin Berko Shemets, a half-Tlingit half-Jewish warhammer-wielding giant of a man, nine weeks to solve all of the remaining homicide cases, all of which number no less than eleven, not including the popped junkie that ruined Meyer’s morning.  Leads are followed both to branching paths of further investigation and to fruitless cul-de-sacs; contacts are questioned, threatened, cajoled; alcohol is consumed; insults are exchanged; chess is played.  Hanging above all of this, a black cloud pregnant with the threat of rain, is the rapidly approaching ‘Reversion’.  Reversion is the U.S. government’s euphemism for ‘taking back Alaska from the Jews’ and the response to this, organised by the pious Verbover sect, forms the larger machinery of the plot of the novel.

Those familiar with other works by Michael Chabon will recognise in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union some familiar themes, such as identity and the relationship between father and son.  But it is the careful consideration of redemption that bridges the two and forms the double-helix that gives life to the novel.

Chabon understands that a good detective novel needs more than just a well constructed plot; it also needs a good detective.  And so he gives us the sometimes stereotypical but never trite Meyer Landsman.  Landsman is a man who, according to family tradition, self-medicates with large doses of nicotine and alcohol.  He is a skilled detective, but not much of a man.  There are shadows in his past just dark enough for him to indulge in casual nihilism.  There is nothing in this that is new to the genre, but it is a model perfectly suited to Chabon’s intentions.

The novel owes much of its genesis to the accidental discovery by Chabon of a Yiddish phrasebook in a bookstore.  Say it in Yiddish led him to the same questions he has been asking for years: what does it mean to be Jewish?  If the traditional Jewish homeland is Israel, where is his home?  The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is an attempt to answer these questions of identity and more.  Like his detective, Chabon seeks an identity, moving the pieces on the board until he has the solution to the problem, until he has himself checked, for it is surely himself that he is facing.  He makes his first move by digging into the social strata of Jewish society.  Characters in the novel range from secular Landsman Jews to the zealous Verbovers, with intermediary layers, such as Berko Shemets, Landsman’s confused half-native-American Jew.  But which one is the most Jewish?  Does it matter?  Certainly not to the coming storm that is the Reversion.

Every son is his father’s messiah.  Every child bears within them the potential to redeem their father for the wrongs that he has done, for the bad choices he has made, to absolve him of his sins and give to the vector of his life a greater magnitude.  The pressure of this potential, like the flesh of fruit under the unrelenting glare of the sun, can be immense.  But when it is the redemption of an entire people, this pressure reaches deep-sea depths.  The Yiddish Policemen’s Union holds a prism to this idea and reveals the spectrum of its light.

Landsman is a man whose messiah died at birth, a man who believes that his chance at redemption will never come, and so he stains his fath and his self with reckless abandon, this faithless Yid.  Berko Shemets, the son of a Tlingit mother and a Jewish father, yearns for his father’s acceptance but is unable to redeem him for the things that he has done.

While in these two instances Chabon handles this theme with the care it demands, it is the third example that drives the plot of the novel and, ultimately, reaches too far, expanding to global proportions that border on farce.  Though it would normally be a minor concern, the distended climax of the novel is made more apparent by the primacy of plot to the genre: were it an underdeveloped character or an overused motif, the concern would be largely excusable.

A language is as much a place where a culture lives and thrives as is the ground on which they build their homes.  It is a homeland for their dreams and passions, a reliquary for their prayers and beliefs and ideas, a dump for their garbage.  This is perhaps nowhere better expressed than in the language of the Jews, Yiddish.  And so it is with genre fiction.  Chabon remains faithful to the language of the noir detective novel, a clipped dialect of gunshot-grim, stacatto character appraisal and laconic sarcasm.  The usually verbose Chabon is served well by his grasp of the noir tone, for the prose is enriched with an authentic cadence that would have otherwise been sorely missed.

What is redemption?  What should the redeemed expect from the redeemer?  To what extent matters the will of the redeemer?  These are all questions on which Michael Chabon seeks to shed some light, but it is in the boundaries of the characters and their relationships (father-son, secular-pious) that The Yiddish Policemen’s Union shines.  In his paradoxically Yiddish-strange yet noir-familiar language, Chabon has crafted a tale that exults in its telling and redeems that faults of its author through the characters that live it.

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