The Yiddish Policemen's Union (5)

I just finished reading Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. I don't want to plant major spoilers in this blog, so I will say that there are two major mysteries solved in the end: the nature of the monstrous conspiracy engineered by Litvak, and the murder of Mendel Shpilman. And the subplot of the relationship between  Meyer Landsman and his ex-wife Bina Gelbfish (now Meyer's boss in the police department) assumes a major role in the end.

As to the leading forces behind the conspiracy, there is a true believer, the cynical manipulator Litvak, and perhaps the most powerful faction which in the real world would correspond to the Christian Zionists. But here is what Litvak thinks (p. 345):
In return for providing them with manpower, a Messiah, and financing beyond their wildest dreams, the only thing that Litvak had ever asked of his partners, clients, employers, and associates in this venture was that he never be expected to believe the nonsense that they believed. Where they saw the fruit of divine wishes in a newborn red heifer, he saw the product of $1 million in taxpayer dollars spent secretly on bull semen and in vitro fertilization. In the eventual burning of this little red cow, they saw the purification of all Israel and the fulfillment of a millenia-old promise; Litvak saw, at most, a necessary move in an ancient game--the survival of the Jews.
As Landsman comes face to face with the key player in the American government who facilitates the plot, he is disgusted with the whole game (p. 368):
"Fuck what it written," Landsman says. "You know what?" All at once he feels weary of ganefs and prophets, guns and sacrifices and the infinite gangster weight of God. He's tired of hearing about the promised land and the inevitable bloodshed required for its redemption. "I don't care what it written. I don't care what supposedly got promised to sandal-wearing idiot whose claim to fame is that he was ready to cut his own son's throat for the sake of a hair-brained idea. I don't care about red heifers and patriarchs and locusts. A bunch of old bones in the sand. My homeland is in my hat. It's in my ex-wife's tote bag."

He sits down. He lights another cigarette.

"Fuck you," Landsman concludes. "And fuck Jesus, too. he was a pussy."
On page 372 you will find an account of Landsman's dream about Einstein, chess, Landsman's sister, and the destiny of the Jews.

Bina, like Landsman, realizes the extent to which she is only a pawn. Omitting egregious spoilers, I'm quoting part of what she says to Meyer (p. 375):
"God damn them all. I always knew they were there. Down there in Washington. Up there over our heads. Holding the strings. Setting the agenda. Of course I knew that. We all knew that. We all grew up knowing that, right? We are here on sufferance. Houseguests. But they ignored us for so long. Left us to our own devices. It was easy to kid yourself. Make you think you had a little autonomy, in a small way, nothing fancy. I thought I was working for everyone. [.....]"
A little later Landsman ruminates (p. 280):
Landsman considers the cohort of yids who arrived with his father, those who were not broken by suffering and horror but rather somehow resolved. The former partisans, resisters, Communist gunmen, left-Zionist saboteurs--the rabble, as they were styled in the newspapers of the south--who showed up in Sitka after the war with their vulcanized souls and fought with Polar Bears like Hertz Shemets their brief, doomed battle for control of the District. They knew, those bold and devastated men, knew as they knew the flavor of the tongues in their mouths, that their saviors would one day betray them. They walked into this wild country that had never seen a Jew and set about preparing for the day when they would be rounded up, sent packing, forced to make a stand. Then, one by one, these wised-up angry men and women had been coopted, picked off, fattened up, set against one another, or defanged by Uncle Hertz and his endless operations.
That's about all I can reveal of the plot. As for my overall evaluation, I have come to admire Chabon's fictional achievement. It really does take a lot to write a novel like this. I am not so taken with the nature of the apocalyptic conspiracy that forms the linchpin of the plot, but perhaps that reflects the prevalence now of the theocratic fascism that threatens to destroy the world. Ultimately, this is a meditation on the precarious nature of Jewish identity, which, in the confines of this scenario makes sense, whether or not it would be my main preoccupation in the real world. Chabon's style is quite rich, and he does successfully create a noirish evironment, in which the authenticity of his own Yiddishisms doesn't matter so much.

When you are finished reading the novel, think again about the title.

In addition to the installments of this review, if you follow the subject "Michael Chabon" on this blog, you will find meditations about alternative history and historically oriented novels in general, Jewish and otherwise. I rarely read novels, but before this, I read Ned Bauman's Boxer, Beetle, which featured a seedy lower class Jewish milieu in the East End of London in the 1930s. I don't have much to go on to posit a trend, but I can speculate.

If there is some trend of writing Jewish historical fiction and alternate histories--the ones I know are those in which Esperanto and Zamenhof pop up--it must mean something about an attitude toward the present, as if there were past potentialities according to which things might have turned out differently. But I don't know enough about any of the authors to know their minds, and while I know why Jews and others would be disillusioned with American society or the contemporary world as a whole, I am too far removed from specifically Jewish concerns and their corresponding milieu to know what Jewish authors think about Jews, if generalizations are supportable.

As you know, the whodunit begins with a burned-out, alcohol-besodden detective investigating the murder of a chess-playing junkie in the run-down Hotel Zamenhof in which they both reside. In the end there's a bit of redemption for Meyer Landsman, though not for the society in which he lives. I haven't researched enough of Michael Chabon to know whether Hotel Zamenhof is so named in order to contrast the shabbiness of the reality with the utopian ideal. Zamenhof was a pioneer of the Zionist movement in its earliest stages and renounced it by the time it was becoming a real project, favoring a universalist humanistic project even while still working on the problem of adapting East European Jewry to the modern world. Zamenhof only gets brief mention in the novel as a putative ghost. Perhaps whatever redemption there is must be covered in the grime of hard experience. Perhaps there is at least a reminder of the possibility of redemption in our Hotel Zamenhof?

The Yiddish Policemen's Union (4)

The actual novel Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union comprises 411 pages, including the prefatory quote:
And they went to sea in a sieve -- Edward Lear
But there is also back matter, consisting of a glossary, author's note [acknowledgments] , bio of the author, "The Frozen Chosen" by Patricia Cohen, "Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts" by Michael Chabon, blurbs about Chabon's other fiction, advert for the CD audio of the book performed by actor Peter Riegert.

Cohen's essay, originally published in The New York Times, gives us a portrait of Chabon in the real Sitka, Alaska, along with his thoughts about the construction of his fictional universe. Apparently, in reality Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, actually in 1940 did support opening up the Alaska territory to European Jews. Chabon got in hot water for his essay triggered by his reaction to the 1958 phrase book Say It in Yiddish, and started thinking about an imaginary Yiddishland. Cohen describes the real Sitka and its Jewish and other inhabitants. From the interview with Chabon, we learn that Chabon found an affinity between Isaac Babel in English and hard-boiled detective fiction. Also about Chabon's approach to style:"I felt like I had to invent a whole new language, a dialect." He explains the creation of his own slang as well as his approach to the characters and detective fiction generally.

Cohen was motivated by the themes of destiny and chosenness, and wondering what the world would be like minus the state of Israel. "How mad it seems that this tiny little scrap of land [would be central in global geopolitics] . . . . I have a very strong feeling of complete ambivalence about a world without Israel . . . . I didn't come in with a point to prove or an agenda."

Chabon's 1997 essay on Yiddish, which appeared in Harper's magazine, is reprinted in the book. He takes Uriel and Beatrice Weinreich's Say It in Yiddish as an exercise in futility. As Yiddish had been abandoned by Israel for Hebrew, leaving surviving Yiddish speakers stranded in limbo, the actual application of Yiddish to contemporary situations--booking a plane flight, for example--to be fantasy. Hence Chabon fantasizes about an alternative Yiddish-speaking homeland. Would its denizens be as rough and tough as Israelis? And here is the germ of his future novel. And then he wonders what Jewish Europe would have been like had it been spared the Holocaust.


Esperanto photo archive at Harvard Library

Harvard Library Visual Information Access can be searched for 'Esperanto', yielding 6 results. All photos originate from the Central Zionist Archives.

Results #5 & #6 actually consist of two images apiece. # of these are apparently identical photos of L.L. Zamenhof; the last is apparently a photo of his father, Marc Zamenhof. #5 dates the Zamenhof photo at 1908.

#1 is a photo of Zamenhof's grave.

None of the above photos are of good quality. However, there are 3 photos of excellent quality.  They are, respectively, from the 5th (1943), 6th (1944), and 7th (1945) Palestine Esperanto Congress, Jerusalem.

I had no idea that there were Esperanto congresses in Palestine, let alone during the Holocaust of World War II whilst European Jewry was being exterminated.  There's a story here.


The Yiddish Policemen's Union (3)

I've now read 40 chapters, about 360 pages, with six chapters (about 50 pages) to go.

Occasionally my attention has strayed and I lost the thread of what was going on, but it always picked up again and stayed glued for a long while to this whodunit. As a crime novel with pseudo-Yiddishkeit, this is a great read. What its meaning or message is eludes me, but perhaps that too is part of the whodunit.

The plot revolves around detective Meyer Landsman's unrelenting, unauthorized drive to resolve the murder of Mendel Shpilman (a.k.a. Emanuel Lasker) at their common home, the Hotel Zamenhof. The Hotel Zamenhof, born of high ideals, is a seedy, degenerated dive. Perhaps this contrast was intended by Chabon?  Landsman is an unlikely hero, and Shpilman a dodgy candidate for the role for which he was groomed. The Jewish settlement of the Sitka district of Alaska, temporarily reserved for Jewish refugees with its own governing structure but now facing Reversion to Alaskan control, is now endangered. The Jews are not only unsettled by this prospect, but their entire existence is askew, uncomfortable, damaged and wounded, far remote from ideals or utopian visions, compromised not only by their difficult circumstances but by their internal politics and their relations with both the indigenous people and the American government. The worst among the Jews are the ultra-orthodox, who wield illegitimate political power and harbor a gangster element among them. And the manipulation of their religious fanaticism could prove to be the world's undoing.

Perhaps I am not the only one tempted to draw parallels between this alternate history and real history.  But I have no real clue as to Chabon's intent.

There is a history of struggle between the Jews and the Tlingit, with multiethnic offspring and antagonistic friendships in the mix, as one would expect. Here is an extract from one colorful exchange illustrating the situation (p. 283):
[....] "Johnny the Jew," he says. "Well, well. Beanie and all. Clearly you haven't had any difficulties lately saying the holy blessing over the Filipino donut."

"Fuck you, Dick, you anti-Semitic midget."

"Fuck you, Johnny, and your chickenshit insinuations about my integrity as a police officer."

In his rich but rusty Tlingit, Berko expresses a wish to one day see Dick lying dead and shoeless in the snow.

"Go shit in the ocean," Dick says in flawless Yiddish.

They step toward each other, and the large man takes the small one into his embrace. [....]
There's more to this priceless dialogue. Dick also has more to say about his boundless suspicion of Jews (285).

There is more to the linguistic mix as well, as Jews of different social origins have different linguistic peculiarities.  Here is an example of something new to Landsman (p. 286).
"Hebrew?" Berko says. "Mexicans speaking Hebrew?"

"That's what it sounded like to me," Landsman says. "Not synagogue Hebrew, either." Landsman knows Hebrew when he hears it. But the Hebrew he knows is the traditional brand, the one his ancestors carried with them through the millennia of their European exile, oily and salty as a piece of fish smoked to preserve it, its flesh flavored strongly by Yiddish. That kind of Hebrew is never employed for human conversation. It's only for talking to God. If it was Hebrew that Landsman heard at Peril Strait, it was not the old salt-herring tongue but some spiky dialect, a language of alkali and rocks. It sounded to him like the Hebrew brought over by the Zionists after 1948. Those hard desert Jews tried fiercely to hold on to it in their exile but, as with the German Jews before them, got overwhelmed by the teeming tumult of Yiddish, and by the painful association of their language with recent failure and disaster. As far as Landsman knows, that kind of Hebrew is extinct except among a few last holdouts meeting annually in lonely halls.
I have no idea whether these graphic analogies are apt for any variant of Hebrew or Yiddish. They do in any case illustrate Chabon's vivid style, and they are suggestive of the social/political realities associated with these languages. Note also the reversal of the fates of Yiddish and Hebrew. Remember that in this alternative history the fledgling state of Israel is destroyed, and the Yiddish-speaking Jews dominate the Jewish settlement in Sitka.

The generation that settled in Alaska found a great disparity between the imagined fables of Alaska and the reality found there. Its songs mark this disillusionment. (291)
Two million Jews got off the boats and found no rolling prairies dotted with buffalo. No feathered Indians on horseback. Only a spine of flooded mountains and fifty thousand Tlingit village-dwellers already in possession of most of the flat and usable land. Nowhere to spread out, to grow, to do anything more than crowd together in the teeming style of Vilna and Lodz. The homesteading dreams of a million landless Jews, fanned by movies, light fiction, and informational brochures provided by the United States Department of the Interior--snuffed on arrival. Every few years some utopian society or other would acquire a tract of green that reminded some dreamer of a cow pasture. They would found a colony, import livestock, pen a manifesto. And then the climate, the markets, and the streak of doom that marbled Jewish life would work their charm. The dream farm would languish and fail.
Just a story, or is there more behind Chabon's fictional creation?

Harry Harrison & Ramón Llull

Harry Harrison (March 12, 1925 – August 15, 2012) was a noted science fiction writer, also an Esperantist. Here is the Esperanto version of his Wikipedia entry:

Harry Harrison - Vikipedio

Esperanto appears in several of Harrison's works, particularly in the Stainless Steel Rat and Deathworld series, according to Wikipedia. According to Vikipedio, several of Harrison's works have been translated into Esperanto.

I am not conversant with other references to the history of universal/artificial languages, but I was randomly alerted to this reference to Ramón Llull, the godfather of the ars combinatoria, a precursor of Leibniz and the philosophical language movement of the early modern period:

The Ethical Engineer - Chapter III by Harry Harrison (Deathworld 2)
(at The Linguist)

Here is the one reference:

"Shouldn't have thrown the Ramon Lull book," Jason said. "The ship can't stomach it any more than I could." 
How this fits into the chapter I do not understand. Perhaps one of you knows, and knows more about comparable instances of this sort of thing in Harrison's work. 

In any case, you can not only read this narrative, but you can listen to a reading of it thanks to LibriVox. There you will also find several recordings in Esperanto.


Na'vi language & 'Avatar' revisited

Here is an entry link for conlang buffs to the Nav'i language, created in tandem with the scenario for the film AVATAR.

My mini-review of the film Avatar itself can be found on my "Reason & Society" blog.

Por Esperantistoj: jen pri la artefarita Na'via lingvo kreita por la filmo Avatar. Mi kritikas la primitivisman ideologion de la filmo anglalingve, aliloke.