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.