The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Just finished Michael Chabon’s amazing novel, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” today, and must say that it is probably my favorite book of the year (2007). Set in an imaginary future where exiled Jews have been resettled in Alaska after the failure in 1948 of the Jewish state, the book is an homage to Raymond Chandler detective style writing. In fact, it’s Chandler meets Dickens, with flip metaphors (an ugly building described as “a rat cage in a fish tank”), and richly imaginative descriptions of setting, such as Dickens’ trademark fog in “Bleak House”. Jews in the snow. Bleak stuff for the protagonist, Meyer Landsman, a policeman who finds himself investigating the murder of a mysterious former chess prodigy, heroin addict and messiah. Naturally, Landsman is warned off the case, but persists anyway, out of some obscure sense of duty.

yiddish.jpgHere Chabon describes the failed “Big Macher” mall, where he hopes to find a suspect, but ends up getting shot:
“Landsman straps an extra clip to his belt and drives out to the north end, past Halibut Point, where the city sputters and the water reaches across the land like the arm of a policeman. Just off the Ickes Highway, the wreck of a shopping center marks the end of the dream of Jewish Sitka. The push to fill every space from here to Yakovy with the Jews of the world gave out in this parking lot…Landsman leaves his car at the median and hikes across the giant frozen blank of the parking lot toward the front door. The snow is not as deep here as in the streets of the central city. The sky is high and pale gray, with darker gray tiger stripes. Landsman huffs through his nostrils as he marches toward the glass doors, their handles pinioned like arms with a dangling length of blue rubberized chain.”

Everything is provisional, tentative, and possibly pointless, as wheels within wheels turn, threatening to crush Landsman. Added to the stock noir mood is the fact that, after 60 years of “temporary” safe haven, the Federal District of Sitka is about to revert to American hands in a few weeks, leaving the Jews to make their own way in the world, again, as usual. Landsman is a man trying to redeem himself, in a world where there is little reward for asking too many questions.

It’s a tremendous book, richly imagined, funny, complex and a joy to read.


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