Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Yiddish Policemen's Union - Michael Chabon

Chant with me. All together now. Yes sir, you too. At the count of three. One. Two. Three.

CHA-BON! CHA-BON! CHA-BON! CHA-BON!

{And F a a a a d e ... }

Wow! Now this is why I read fiction.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union was published in 2007, seven years after Chabon's other masterpiece, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. In my review of the book, I had promised myself that given how much I liked this introduction to Chabon, I was going to get to The Yiddish Policemen's Union next. So here I am - still loving it.

On surface, this is a murder mystery. In Room 208 of the rundown Hotel Zamenhof in frozen, remote Sitka, Alaska, a Jew with no ready friends, no visitors, and no real life except for a cheap chessboard gets a bullet in his head while asleep. A few doors away is Detective Meyer Landsman of the Sitka District Police, living in a little dump because his job has reached a dead end, his wife has left him, he has little money and he can't sleep.

It is so, that we meet Meyer Landsman, one of the more amazing detectives you are likely to meet in fiction. "Landsman has only two moods", Chabon tells us early: "working and dead".

He has the memory of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker.

Do you see it right there? There is never a predictable image with Chabon, never a dull metaphor. "Memory of a convict"? Precious!

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is set in an alternative history. In this version of the world, Israel falls in the war of 1948. There is nowhere for Jews of the world to go, but (literally) the end of the world - to Sitka, Alaska. This is now a part of the world where Yiddish is the primary language, everyone from policemen to gangster to victim is Jewish. Sixty years after this population of Sitka, time is ticking closer for a resolution to this 'temporary' Jewish settlement. History is everywhere. The future is on every fearful mind. Amid this chaos of a hoping, praying, angry, fatalistic mass, a yid gets shot.

Compelled by nothing more than a pig-headed resolve to unriddle the murder under his nose, Landsman pushes on, step by tired, dispirited step. The death, he discovers, is no minor sideshow. The victim no loser yid. A gangster priest, a chess master, a messiah. No, this is no ordinary murder.

Behind it all though, there is Chabon's lyrical, majestic, magical prose.

Rabbi Heskel Shpilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon
house with the windows shut and the sink left running. A little kid lumped him together, a mob of kids, blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man. They clumped the dough of his arms and legs to the dough of this body, then jammed his head down on top. A millionaire could cover a Rolls-Royce with the fine black silk-and-velvet expanse of the rebbe's frock coat and trousers. It would require the brain strength of the eighteen greatest sages in history to reason through the arguments against and in favor of classifying the rebbe's massive bottom as either a creature of the deep, a man-made structure, or an unavoidable act of God. If he stands up, or if he sits down, it doesn't make any difference in what you see.


Can this paragraph be made any better? Can it give any more pleasure than it does? Can it get any more lyrical without becoming poetry?

Michael Chabon is an artist. His talent is so bright it is dizzying - in every page, in every little turn of phrase, there is the Chabon stamp. And that is what makes The Yiddish Policemen's Union the great book that it is.

After the triumphant Kavalier and Clay, I came to this book with very high expectations, hoping I would get a repeat, fearing this could not be. "A Messiah who actually arrives is no good to anybody" Chabon writes, "A hope fulfilled is already half a disappointment."

I beg, Mr. Chabon, sir, to differ.

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