Monday, June 16, 2008

"Yiddish Policemen's Union": No Kvetching Here

I've written before about my love for classy detective novels, so when The Yiddish Policemen's Union came out last year, I thought "I should check this out." And then a couple of months ago I read Kavalier & Clay and realized that Michael Chabon is awesome in general, making Yiddish Policemen's a must-read.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a classic hardboiled mystery in an inspired alternate-history setting. We learn on Page 1 that a man using the alias Emanuel Lasker has been shot dead in a fleabag hotel--but this hotel is in the Yiddish-speaking metropolis of Sitka, Alaska, which was granted to the Jews for 60 years following the failure of the state of Israel in 1948. Now it is 2007 and Sitka is about to return to American control, throwing its residents into a muddle. And when detective Meyer Landsman, already down-on-his-luck, tries to solve Lasker's murder, he runs up against a complex conspiracy involving some obscure corners of Jewish lore.

My half-Jewish mom informs me that landsman is the Yiddish word for "countryman, comrade," and Meyer Landsman is kind of an Everyman least, an Every-detective. Chabon has fun drawing parallels between secular Jews and noir detectives, both trying to do right in a world that lacks a Messiah or a moral compass. Though cynical and faithless, they persevere. They both use self-deprecating wisecracks as a kind of armor. And not only does Landsman have personal angst (a failed marriage), he also carries the angst of his entire race. When an Indian doctor criticizes his alcohol habit, Landsman retorts: "Tell me, please, if the country of India were being canceled, and in two months, along with everyone you loved, you were going to be tossed into the jaws of the wolf with nowhere to go and no one to give a fuck, and half the world had just spent the past thousand years trying to kill Hindus, don't you think you might take up drinking?"

As shown by its willingness to play with Jewish stereotypes, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is refreshingly irreverent. Everyone calls one another "yid," and the murdered man was a heroin addict who tied off with the cord from his tefillin. Yet at the same time, the novel explores issues of contemporary Jewish identity--ones that resonate in our own world and not just in alternate history. For instance: is Judaism religious, ethnic, or something else? Can secular Jews and orthodox Jews get along? What does it mean to belong to a group that defines itself by its exile? Can the Jews ever find a place to accept them? (In the novel, the colonizing Jews of Sitka end up in a rather Israel-and-Palestine situation with the native Alaskan tribes.)

But The Yiddish Policemen's Union is also a real page-turner, told in present tense so the events come even more vividly to life. Sitka and its residents are wonderfully imagined--in fact, I wanted to see more of some characters. For instance, the American reporter Dennis Brennan, who speaks a hilariously mangled version of Yiddish, appears in only one scene. Yiddish slang peppers the book; my copy (Harper Perennial, paperback) had a helpful mini-glossary at the end.

What I love most about Chabon's writing is what I'd call his thematically appropriate similes. Many writers fill their pages with flashy similes, but if anything can be compared to any other random thing, where is the resonance, where is the weight? (E.g., this bugged me about Marisha Pessl's writing in Special Topics in Calamity Physics. A simile like "Houses slumped against the smooth lawns like dozing elephants on ice rinks" feels forced and unnecessary.) Chabon, however, usually draws comparisons that enhance his novel's themes and concerns. Similes that could only fit The Yiddish Policemen's Union and would seem inappropriate in any other book. For instance, during a funeral sequence, the fir trees in the cemetery "sway like grieving Chassids," and the voice of blues singer Robert Johnson "sounds as broken and reedy as a Jew saying kaddish in the rain." Because in this scene, along with the fir trees and the blues music, there are also grieving Chassids saying kaddish in the rain. The similes add detail and emotional resonance--they are not merely flashy.

Or see this dazzling passage, describing Landsman's sister Naomi, a bush pilot:
The wings of an airplane are engaged in a constant battle with the air that envelops them, denting and baffling and warping it, bending and staving it off. Fighting it the way a salmon fights against the current of the river in which it's going to die. Like a salmon--that aquatic Zionist, forever dreaming of its fatal home--Naomi used up her strength and energy in every struggle.
So in three sentences, Chabon draws an intricate web of connections between Naomi's personality, what she does for a living (fly airplanes), the wildlife of the area where she lives (Alaskan salmon), and her religion (Judaism). Startlingly clever and illuminating.

The Coen Brothers are going to adapt Yiddish Policemen's Union as a movie, and I could not be happier. Is it a contradiction to say that the world of this book is sui generis and totally original; yet at the same time, it cries out to be a Coen film? It's noirish, it uses weird slang, it delights in language, it takes place in an odd corner of America, most of its roles are for "character actors," there's plenty of violence and dark humor and some seriously evil characters... all the typical Coen Brothers motifs. (And the brothers are Jewish, of course.) A Berkeley bookstore is having a "cast the Yiddish Policemen's movie contest" (scroll down)--I just might put together an entry!

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is now sitting comfortably on my shelf next to Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. It's just a coincidence due to alphabetical order. But it feels right.


Mark In Irvine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark In Irvine said...


This morning, a friend (Heim Yankel) and I were discussing whether the word is "lanceman" or "landsman". I'm pleased to say that I, the goy, was correct, both as to spelling and as to pronunciation.

In my mini-search for corroboration of my hunch in order to gloat a bit to Jeff (aka "Yank"), I came across a few discussions of "The Yiddish Policeman's Union", a copy of which I recently picked up for less than a song at my local "friends of the library bookstore" here in SoCal (having enjoyed "The Amazing Adventures ...").

I have just read YOUR blog-posting on TYPU and as a result, have decided to move the book to the top of my "must read" list. I'm kvetching, however, because my copy does not have the Yiddish glossary in the back with which your copy is graced. Oy veh iz mir! Sei gesund!

Dr.J said...

I have just finished reading TYPU (ESPY in spanish), mixed feelings. Of course it is a great work by an author I cannot pretend to give lessons to (we were born the same year by the way). But I find the novel too "constructed" by which I mean that many allusions, names, references and episodes seem to be there just for the sake of tearing a knowing nod from the "intelligent" reader. I doubt that taking away the borrowings from Borges, Nabokov, Chandler, Roth (two of them at least)... and so on there´s much left of the story. I don´t care about that but it seems to help nothing towards the moving of the plot. Jokes about everyone from Zamenhof to Chekhov are a bit too much.
I completely agree on the other hand, that comparisons, similes and metaphors are solid gold here, I have read a translation by a spanish novelist, so it is very literary but I don´t know if very literal, there are a couple of mistakes about chess.
I found myself remenbering Robinson Crusoe (the bit towards the end when they burn a totem by a tribe of Tartars through Mongolia) and Brian Keith, the actor in a Lady among cowboys (the lady being Maureen O´Hara) who tried to acclimate Hertfordshire cows in the USA. Well, sometimes I am a bit lousy.
Could you tell me if the Coen film is going ahead, my casting is: Antonio Banderas for Landsman and Javier Bardem for Berko, with Mira Sorvino (coloured hair) as Bina.

Marissa said...

I haven't heard anything about whether the Coen Bros' film is going ahead--but I think they are the perfect people to film this story! Not sure I agree with your idea to cast your compatriots in the leading roles, though. Banderas and Bardem are both talented performers, but I don't think either of them would be believable as Jewish-Americans. Banderas, especially, has a REALLY thick Spanish accent when he speaks English; he'd come across as a "Latin Lover" instead of a film noir detective.

Dr.J said...

Banderas has an accent even speaking spanish! but the idea is that the characters are not american at all, isn´t it? their language is a dialect of yiddish and just sometimes they turn to American english. If you take him as a latin lover at his age it is a great piece of performing by him.
Have a nice Independence Day

Marissa said...

Haha, yeah, I guess it is the YIDDISH Policeman's Union, but any film would probably just be made in English (maybe with the actors speaking with accents?). It's not just Banderas' accent that's wrong for the role, though, it's his appearance--he could pass for a Sephardic Jew, but with a name like Landsman, shouldn't he be Ashkenazi Jewish?