I read this book with a certain prejudice towards Malamud, and here’s why
I came to know of Malamud through the New Yorker’s podcasts. In one of them, Alexandar Hemon who edits the Best European Fiction Anthologies, chose to read Malamud’s “A Summer’s Reading”. The fiction editor at the New Yorker, asked Hemon why he though people no longer read Malamud as before, and he said, though meaning well, that it’s because Malamud is a 19th century writer. And so, naturally, I read the book looking for little clues that would make me pop with Aha! 19th century feeling here!
That said, I don’t know to which 19th century Hemon was referring, but this is a fiction book based on a true event and that made me think of the Goncourt brothers, among others. Had I known this fact beforehand, I wouldn’t have read the book, but I was excited to find a book by a Jewish author in Lebanon that I bought it without much thought about it.
The original title of the book is The Fixer and it won the Pulitzer prize. It is based on the Mendel Beilis affair who was wrongfully accused of ritual murder in Kiev in 1911 – 1913. The book was even made into a movie in 1968 starring Alan Bates. This is my problem with such books: how can I differentiate between fact and fiction, and therefore, judge Malamud’s writing skills? How do I know if Malamud adopts the protagonist’s views, and as a result, his own ideas.
L’Homme de Kiev is the story of Yakov Bok who is abandoned by his wife after years of childless marriage and who consequently takes the decision of leaving the shtetl, now that he is humiliated by his wife, and making the realization that after years of hard work there, he still finds himself in complete misery.
Against the admonishing of his father-in-law not to venture outside the safety of the shtetl, Yakov takes his tools, for he is a fixer of objects, and heads towards Kiev. No sooner is he outside of his familiar surrounding, that the real feeling of anti-semtisim starts filtering through, and he finds himself needing to conceal his real identity even to total strangers whom he helps or requests their services.
The atmosphere in Kiev isn’t better, and the rampant atmosphere of anti-semitism checks his resignation to find a better situation outside the shtetl, and he is forced again to seek refuge in the Jewish quarters of the city. One night, he stumbles on the immobile body of a drunken old man out in the cold, and decides, though he notices the black and white symbol on his coat representing the two-headed eagle of the Black-Hundreds (an antisemitic group) to help his daughter pick him up and secure him home.
His good-deed is well rewarded, first by securing employment at Nikolai Maximovitch’s (the drunken anti-Semite) house, and later, having proved his worth, by being offered the job of supervisor at Maximovitch’s brick factory. Though he is not supposed to work, nor reside in the quarter where the factory is located, he decides to brave the established rule and accepts the employment, at a rather generous salary, by maintaining his newly-assumed false identity.
Diligently working, he, naturally, encounters opposition from the workers and the superior, as he confronts them with their attempts to steal from the owner. His salary allowing him some delicacies hitherto unknown to him, he believes to be enjoying this new life, and it seems to him that his decision to venture outside the shtetl was the right one.
The above part is the one I find quite brilliant in this book. Because he “established” himself under his new identity, and was now finally able to enjoy – as much as this word can be used to describe the working class of the time – he also experienced some security; security, from the bigotry of Kiev’s social life at the time, that he kept delaying procuring himself fake papers attesting to his false identity. This is quite smart and I think it applies to people who are racially persecuted as well as to people outside of their “natural habitats” who defy traditional wisdom and believe they can make it outside their comfort zones, and if all things proceed normally, they are given a brief respite and are allowed to relish this new freedom, or this new situation, only to be violently pulled back to the reality. Of course, the message out of this is a pessimistic one: never trust in the goodness of people, always be on your guard. I wonder how many Jews who immigrated from Eastern Europe have instantly identified with Yakov Bok’s situation, right there, in his constant delaying of procuring himself these securing documents.
Yakov wakes up one morning to the hysterical sounds of the residents around him, and finds out that a child of 12 years old, who have been pestering his factory every once in a while, was brutally murdered. This is the wake-up call, and attempting to clear his stuff from his room to flee the place, he is arrested and accused of murder.
Further on, the book no longer interests me. It is a lengthy account of Yakov’s imprisonment, his humiliation, his torture, his interviews by the officials, his solitude. It is a truthful account, no doubt; there is no unnecessary exaggeration of the details, but that is to be expected considering that it is based on a true story. Of course there are lies being spun around him, of course evidence is tampered with, well-meaning investigators are kept away, abominations against the Jews by Orthodox Christians abound, but all this seem so trifle to me. There is no originality in Yakov’s thoughts about religion, or even metaphysics.
I would have much preferred the insinuations of anti-Semitism outside the prison, this atmosphere of bigotry that follows the person of a stigmatized race. Instead, the novel suddenly took on an experimental turn, with the results of the experiment quite predictable to me.
On another note, my book’s cover had a beautiful painting by Boris Bovine Fenkel, called Le Mariage. Googling this artist didn’t produce much images, but it led me to quite some interesting articles about the school of painting this artist belonged to: l’Ecole de Paris, (unfortunately, only in French) a predominantly Jewish grouping of painters in Montparnasse in the period leading to World War 2 (1905 – 1939). And things are these days with online search, one article led to another and I found myself reading about The Night of the Murdered Poets, in Stalinist Russia (The French article on Wikipedia is here). Apparently, not even in “progressivist” Russia did anti-Semitism subside.