It takes a brave man in the US to criticise Israel. In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon has been even more courageous – in the world of his novel, Israel does not even exist. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is an alternate history – or “counterfactual”, if you’re a literary snob – in which the Jews were booted out of Palestine in 1948, and so David Ben-Gurion never unilaterally declared on 14 May 1948 the establishment of the nation state of Israel. Instead, the US provides land in Alaska for temporary settlement, Sitka, on a sixty-year lease.
(There are clues in the story indicating that the world of the novel diverged further from our history than initially seems the case – a republic in Russia, mention of an atom bomb being dropped on Berlin in 1946, and references to a war with Cuba during the 1960s.)
Like Robert Harris’ Fatherland, Chabon uses his alternate history to tell a story whose resolution is dependent upon knowledge of real history. And also like Harris’s novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union reads like another genre entirely – in this case, a hard-boiled detective novel. Meyer Landsman is an alcoholic homicide detective living in a fleabag hotel. When a fellow tenant is murdered – executed, in fact, by a shot to the back of the head while high on heroin – Landsman investigates. Since Sitka is weeks away from “Reversion” – i.e., the end of the Jews lease on the Alaskan land, and thus the end of their “homeland” – Landsman’s superiors want him to drop his investigation. He deliberately disobeys them… and uncovers a conspiracy which reaches all the way up to the United States’ president.
The Sitka of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is – as the title suggests – a Yiddish culture, rather than the real-world Israel’s Hebrew. Chabon does not translate the Yiddish, but the meaning of the words is clear from context. Anthony Burgess did something similar with Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange – even going so far as to say his intention was to “brainwash” the reader into understanding the borrowed Russian terms much as the protagonist Alex was himself brainwashed not to inflict violence. Given that Chabon has said in interviews that the inspiration behind The Yiddish Policemen’s Union was an article he wrote about a Yiddish phrasebook, this is perhaps not unsurprising.
The prose is very Chandleresque, although it occasionally struck me as a mite too calculatedly so. Some of the turns of phrase, the off-the-wall similes and metaphors, read a little forced. The relationship between Landsman and his partner, Berko Shemets, however, is handled beautifully – some of the best characterisation I’ve read in recent years, in fact. Interestingly, Chabon originally wrote the novel in the first person. Third-person present tense, I think, works much better. The tense gives the story an immediacy which pulls the reader along and over the hurdles created by unfamiliar Yiddish terms or Jewish practices.
Again like Fatherland, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union ends with an event which comes as little surprise to us from our knowledge of the real world. Chabon handles it at a remove, which lessens its impact. Landsman’s cynicism also acts as a barrier against the shock we should feel. But then, to have made him naive and credulous would have meant he could not follow the plot to its conclusion. As it is, the climax slips past little too quickly and easily.
Where The Yiddish Policemen’s Union really shines is in Chabon’s creation of Yiddish Sitka. It’s a fascinating alternate world, and described with a depth and level of detail uncommon in many alternate histories. Perhaps this is because the novel’s focus is very narrow – i.e., a single city and its environs, rather than an entire world. All the same, it’s an impressive invention.
Minor quibbles aside, I was much impressed by The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Much has been made of Chabon’s sensitivity for the genre, and that attitude is very much clear in this novel. He has written a story that is quite clearly science fiction, without pandering to the snobbery of either the genre or its detractors. If only more writers would do the same…