Book: The Yiddish Policemen's Union - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Book: The Yiddish Policemen's Union
Friday, 13 March 2009 at 02:10 pm
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Author: Michael Chabon

Details: (c) 2007 Michael Chabon; Pub 2007 HarperCollins; ISBN 0-00-714982-4

Verdict: The Yiddish Policemen's Union is highly original and a great read.

Reasons for reading it: Lots of people were talking it up when it came out. While I don't always make a beeline for books with a Jewish theme, the premise of this one appealed, and lethargic_man's review (yes, over a year ago, I have a good memory for that sort of thing) piqued my interest.

How it came into my hands: I saw a copy on the new books display shelf in the synagogue library, so I grabbed it, as I'd been intending for ages to read it. I don't make use of the shul library very much, partly because its opening hours are inconvenient and partly because three quarters of its stock is Holocaust memoirs and I have a very limited tolerance for those.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union has a really great AH premise, and really explores that theme extremely well. The point of divergence is that Israel lost the war of independence in 1948, frankly more likely than the real historical outcome where a bunch of barely trained guerillas defeated the combined armies of several Arab countries. Chabon postulates that reaction to the emerging information about the Holocaust led the US to grant land in Alaska for a kind of "reservation"-like Jewish district, which is a bit fanciful, but makes it possible to set the story in a place that most readers won't have any preconceptions about. Like Jo Walton's Small Change trilogy, tYPU uses a fairly old-fashioned detective mystery as a way to explore this alternate history. However, it's a police noir type of mystery, which are much less my thing than Josephine Tey-style cosies, but it's so well written that the genre stuff didn't bother me as much as it otherwise might.

Although portraying the AH is definitely the main point of the book, the story works well as a story, I cared about the whodunnit, and particularly liked the way that murder mystery opens out into a political thriller in the latter part of the book. And the characterization is really very good; Landsman is introduced as your typical grizzled, alcoholic, misanthropic detective, but as he is developed he manages to be very sympathetic in spite of his flaws, and every minor character is memorable and three-dimensional. (No, I lie, there's a trans woman who appears for about three sentences and doesn't do anything except get raped and have her gender history be a shameful secret which furthers a minor part of the plot, but I was disproportionately annoyed by those three sentences.)

The ending is really unexpectedly dark, and the fact that the romance arc has a happy ending doesn't quite mesh with that, it feels at the wrong scale, somehow. That really underlines the clear but never explicit message of the book, which is one of anger at the way Jews have been treated in the twentieth century, but also clear condemnation of those Jews who exploit others in situations where they happen to have temporary, local power. I agree with lethargic_man that the AH setting is a way to criticize Israel without actually doing so, and it's done skillfully enough that I didn't feel that the propaganda intruded on the story. But the ending is really disturbing.

Language stuff: it makes sense that with no Israel there would be no Israeli Hebrew, so having a culture based on Yiddish and Ashkenazi Hebrew is a plausible outcome. The rhythm of the text doesn't feel Yiddish at all, but that may well be a stylistic choice; it wouldn't help the book to have all the characters speaking like stereotypical New York Jews! I think the use of odd bits of Yiddish slang and technical terms is done well. This is meant to be a translation of a hypothetical Yiddish original, so it should sound like English, not Yinglish or any kind of broken English, but the few Yiddish terms do help to give a flavour. Some of the choices are also rather funny if you know Yiddish, but if you don't they're just the usual SF made-up words. There's a long riff on one of the characters being like a bird, which never explicitly mentions that the Yiddish word for "gay" is feygele, a little bird. One thing I didn't like was the names; nearly all the characters have names that describe their character or story role, and that gets annoying (Bina Gelbfisch sounds like something out of Puzzle Pirates, for example.)

You can definitely see why Chabon gets literary awards; tYPU is very well written on several levels, including the language which is very evocative while staying within the flat, journalistic style of detective noir. Several of the reports I've heard have either trumpeted it as being funny, or complained that it's joking about serious issues like the Holocaust and racism, but to be honest I didn't find it a comic book at all. There are one or two jokes and scenes which are amusing, but to me it's about as funny as Hamlet.


Whereaboooots: Sitka, Alaska
Moooood: thoughtfulthoughtful
Tuuuuune: Oi Va Voi: Dissident
Discussion: 15 contributions | Contribute something
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megamole: default
From:megamole
Date:March 14th, 2009 02:40 pm (UTC)
1 hours after journal entry
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pellegrina lent it to me.

It's NOT a funny book. But it is an excellent book.
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lethargic_man: reflect
From:lethargic_man
Date:March 14th, 2009 07:59 pm (UTC)
6 hours after journal entry, 08:59 pm (lethargic_man's time)
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The point of divergence is that Israel lost the war of independence in 1948 [...] Chabon postulates that reaction to the emerging information about the Holocaust led the US to grant land in Alaska for a kind of "reservation"-like Jewish district,

Actually, that's back to front. The point of divergence is the Sitka plan going ahead in 1940; the destruction of the State of Israel is partly because European Jews fled Nazism for Sitka rather than trying to fight the British immigration restrictions to get into Palestine; so Israel ends up being created without enough people to be able to fight off the Arabs.

which is a bit fanciful,

Actually, the suggestion was really made; the point of divergence was actually the death of the person who in our world shot the plan down. As for being fanciful, it's not more so than offering us Uganda half a century earlier.
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forestofglory: default
From:forestofglory
Date:March 14th, 2009 10:37 pm (UTC)
9 hours after journal entry, 03:37 pm (forestofglory's time)
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Ah, good. I was confused, because I seem to remember the Holocaust being less deadly in this Ah. (I think 2 million vs 6 million) It's the only alternate WWII I've read with a better outcome then real life.
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lethargic_man: reflect
From:lethargic_man
Date:March 15th, 2009 08:31 am (UTC)
18 hours after journal entry, 09:31 am (lethargic_man's time)
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I was confused, because I seem to remember the Holocaust being less deadly in this Ah. (I think 2 million vs 6 million) It's the only alternate WWII I've read with a better outcome then real life.

That's because it's not an alternate-WWII setting, it's an alternate-Holocaust setting.

As a second example of which, I offer you Martin J. Gidron's The Severed Wing, in which IIRC WW2 doesn't happen at all, because the outcome of WW1 was different.
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forestofglory: default
From:forestofglory
Date:March 15th, 2009 12:13 pm (UTC)
22 hours after journal entry, 05:13 am (forestofglory's time)
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Fair point. (Though possibly the Holocaust is sub-set of WWII)
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lethargic_man: serious
From:lethargic_man
Date:March 15th, 2009 12:44 pm (UTC)
23 hours after journal entry, 01:44 pm (lethargic_man's time)
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It's not; it merely happened at the same time. The Holocaust (though not the Final Solution) had already started before the War, and would have continued had, for example, the Hess peace mission succeeded.
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livredor: ewe
From:livredor
Date:March 15th, 2009 06:17 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 07:17 pm (livredor's time)
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I think a lot of people, Jews very much included, feel more comfortable saying "people were killed in WWII" rather than "people were systematically murdered for no reason". The latter is true, and it is probably what we should be saying. But it's difficult in polite company; in the war is a very common euphemism for in the Holocaust. But you are absolutely right on historical accuracy grounds.
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:March 15th, 2009 12:55 pm (UTC)
23 hours after journal entry, 01:55 pm (livredor's time)
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We-ell, I don't know that it's really a better outcome. OK, four million lives saved, that's a good thing, but it's still the near total destruction of European Jewry due to a successful, deliberate genocide. And having everyone who got out of Europe spend 60 years living on land that was stolen from the Tlingit in the first place and is about to revert to US control, leaving the Jews with no homeland at all. It looks as if ongoing anti-semitism is worse in this AH than even in the real history for the past 60 years. Plus, the ending of the book implies the attempt to found a new State of Israel now instead of in 48, with even worse violence and aggression against the current inhabitants.
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forestofglory: default
From:forestofglory
Date:March 15th, 2009 03:25 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 08:25 am (forestofglory's time)
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Right. I'll stick to less deadly, then.
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cartesiandaemon: default
From:cartesiandaemon
Date:March 16th, 2009 08:48 pm (UTC)
2 days after journal entry
(Link)
That's interesting, I hadn't thought of it like that. I guess envisaging a more palatable WWII is SO easy, EVERYONE chooses to subvert the idea.
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:March 17th, 2009 05:26 pm (UTC)
3 days after journal entry, 06:26 pm (livredor's time)
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I think you're giving writers too much credit, actually. The reason a lot of people like to make WWII worse, particularly in the direction of lasting longer, is because "the Nazis" are a stand-in for unambiguous bad guys. If your protags are fighting the Nazis, they don't have to have any moral dilemmas about, for example, using force against civilians, anything that's against the Nazis is automatically good. And people want to be able to do unambiguous good versus evil but not necessarily set it in the 1940s, hence extending the Nazi period.

There's also a sort of literary equivalent of Godwin's law: if you want to talk about a society that is going bad, fascism is a convenient shorthand for that. For example, why do the eeeebil government in V for Vendetta use red and black colours and a symbol that looks quite a lot like a Swastika? Well, because otherwise the audience might fail to notice that that they're eeeebil!

Sorry, that was a little cynical. I think part of what's going on with tYPU is that it's very explicitly not a book about the Holocaust. It's a book about Jews in the second half of the twentieth century, and obviously they're affected by being survivors of genocide, but that's not the only factor. I think you might enjoy the book, actually; a lot of it is mocking the kind of convoluted rabbinical arguments that you find amusing, and it's also a very good detective thriller.
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:March 15th, 2009 12:39 pm (UTC)
23 hours after journal entry, 01:39 pm (livredor's time)
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Ah, that makes sense. I think it's still fanciful to imagine that the Sitka thing could have got off the ground, though I didn't know it was based on a real suggestion. I think it would have taken more than the opponent's death to make it viable, though; Uganda was proposed, but it didn't happen. I suppose you could cite those Jewish enclaves in the FSU as examples of making a diaspora Jewish state, but still, it's a bit unlikely.
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lethargic_man: serious
From:lethargic_man
Date:March 15th, 2009 12:48 pm (UTC)
23 hours after journal entry, 01:48 pm (lethargic_man's time)
(Link)
Uganda didn't happen because Weizmann rejected it as opposed to Palestine. But he didn't do so with the knowledge of the Holocaust pressing down on him. After all, without the knowledge of the Holocaust, the State of Israel may not have come about, or certainly not when it did.
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forestofglory: default
From:forestofglory
Date:March 14th, 2009 10:45 pm (UTC)
9 hours after journal entry, 03:45 pm (forestofglory's time)
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I just read The Gentlemen of the Road by the same author. Which is a bit like a Jewish version of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. I quite liked it. Also Chabon lives in Berkeley which means he starts out with me wanting to like him. -- And I have liked the other books of his I've read though they are darker then my usual fair.

I agree with you about the romance arch. Well more that I felt Bina was being used a prize for the main char, which bothered me. I didn't think going back was the right thing for her personally.
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livredor: livre d'or
From:livredor
Date:March 15th, 2009 01:04 pm (UTC)
23 hours after journal entry, 02:04 pm (livredor's time)
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I shall look out for more of Chabon's stuff; this impressed me strongly.

It's true that Bina comes across as a prize in some ways, the more so because the whole thing is from Landsman's point of view which is a very self-centred one. There's also some quite creepy "male gaze" stuff going on; it really is offensive for Landsman to keep checking out his ex wife's cleavage and fantasizing about biting her bum and so on, even if it's framed as just showing that he's still in love with her. But I did get the impression that she needs him too; she is too good for him in a lot of ways, but at the same time, he's her first love and she is really complemented by a partner who's willing to break the rules for the sake of justice. That's especially the case with the reversion of Sitka, leaving her in a position where just going by the book and being an honest, competent police officer isn't going to be enough for her.
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