L’Homme de Kiev (The Fixer), by Bernard Malamud

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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. mendel beilis

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.

The Penguin Book of Jewish Short Stories

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What can I say? I can’t believe I own this book, not because it is a collection edition or it’s rare to be found, but simply because I live in Lebanon and unfortunately we live at a time where Jewish / Israeli cultural output is not possible to be found here. Even the distinction between Jewish and Israeli is no longer made here. I was able to get this at an English bookstore in Berlin, St. George’s English Bookshop. I was also lucky to buy another Hebrew anthology: 8 Great Hebrew Short Novels. Months later, somebody in Lebanon was bold enough to sell Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer (in French though, L’Homme de Kiev) and I managed to snag that one too. I read them all, and hope to be posting my reviews of them quite soon.

This book features the works of 16 Jewish authors, from I L Peretz to Muriel Spark, one short story per author except for the 19th century writers who have two stories included. It’s quite small considering the number of authors, at around 350 pages.

I started reading it expecting some Jewish humor; there is a bit of that with stories like Sholom Aleichem’s Hodel, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s A Friend of Kafka, even The Conversion of the Jews by Philip Roth. That said, I was quite shocked with some of the stories and the harrowing details they include, having forgotten at one point the bloody history itself of the Jews especially in Eastern Europe.

The first of those was White Chalah by Lamed Shapiro. A story of such graphical violence that I had to escape online researching it to make sure I was reading it correctly. This is how it opens:

One day a neighbor broke the leg of a stray dog with a heavy stone, and when Vasil saw the sharp edge of the bone piercing the skin he cried. The tears streamed from his eyes, his mouth, and his nose; the towhead on his short neck shrank deeper between his shoulders; his entire face became distorted and shriveled, and he did not utter a sound. He was then about seven years old.

It is told from the point of view of a gentile, Vasil,  -exceptionally in this anthology- to whom Jews were “people who wore strange clothes, sat in stores, ate white chalah and had sold Christ”. Chalah is the braided bread that observant Jews consume on Sabbath. He is recruited in the army and for the following couple of pages we ride with army destroying and crushing villages on its way while witnessing the violent deaths of its own casualties. One day someone says that all this is the fault of the Jews and the army towards internally cleansing itself from Jewish soldiers and the marches on towards villages where Jews reside. The gruesome descriptions end in a climax of Vasil, having been days without food, consuming the flesh of a Jewish woman as if it were white chalah itself.

I thought one story about the pogroms should be enough for such a small book, but as brutal as White Chalah is, I found The Story of My Dovecot by Isaac Babel Singer more gripping and yet more heartfelt. It is longer, and so allows a bit of background to filter through. It is written in the first person narrative from the viewpoint of a boy competing for admission to middle school, and on what should have been a normal day, comes face to face (literally) with the pogroms of 1905. This feeling of safety being robbed from us is an experience I should never forget as our own Lebanese history, during the civil war, is riddled with. Naturally, in such times, the synagogue offers both worldly and spiritual safety, and throughout the stories one always notices the omnipresence of the synagogue, of its warmth and of the sense of familiarity it offers to the Jews of the Eastern European countries.

Another story that echoed quite vividly with our own, recent history, is Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld.

Spring returned to Badenheim. Bells rang in the near-by country church. The shadows of the forest drew back into the forest. The sun scattered the remaining darkness, and its light spilled out along the main street. It was a moment of transition. Soon the holidaymakers would invade the town.

You’d think that you are in for some idyllic novel, but the date in the title never leaves your mind, and you are reading with apprehension knowing that 1939 can’t bring anything good for the Jews in Europe.  Badenheim is getting ready for the yearly festival, and artists and bands and spectators are flooding the town. Amidst the normal commotion and preparations and the lives of the locals who endure the coming of the visitors, the Department of Sanitations tarts making more than usual inspections and little by little its jurisdiction grows, and the inspections become more like interrogations, and yet the people and the organizers go on with their habitual preparations; all except one Trudy who is prone to hallucinations and who senses that the faces of the people are looking paler than usual.

Without spoiling the rest of the story, I wonder whether Appelfeld wasn’t harsh on the Jews who went on with their lives not expecting or probably not giving due attention to the changes the Nazis started enforcing on their living conditions. The parallels that Badenheim 1939 presents with our own history are remarkable. In July 2006, we also were going on with our regular lives, expecting a flood of tourists for the months of July and August and barely waking up form the euphoria of the end of the World Cup of 2006, we come face to face with the shocking news that Israel is bombing the airport to retaliate for an attack perpetrated by Hizbollah on the southern border with Israel. Gradually, the dream (as it is for every Lebanese) of a busy summer start crumbling, and slowly we find ourselves under an aerial and naval embargo, with half the country in war against Israel and the other half stuck in queues trying to get gas for their cars and food from supermarkets. Of course the proportion between World War 2 and the July War is negligible and the July War only lasted 33 days, but it felt that all this was too real, and too vivid in my mind when I was going through Badenheim 1939.

To conclude, this anthology is one to be considered as an introduction to Jewish literature, and it presents such a wide array of Jewish authors – it even features a South African Jewish writer I have never heard of – that the reader is sure to select one author for further consideration. It’s a pleasant read and because the editor, Emanuel Litvinoff wonders what can be considered Jewish writing and who can be considered a Jewish writer, the reader gets the chance of enjoying the variations of Jewish writing across periods and locations as well.

Other stories I would recommend are: Setting the World to Rights by Amos Oz about the disappointment or the realities of the Kibbutz life, a theme that is partially reconsidered  in The Hill of Evil Counsel (to be reviewed soon), The Conversion of the Jews by Philip Roth, about the blindly gulped religious indoctrination by religious institutions, and The Man in the Drawer, by Bernard Malamud (Malamud, who’s book The Fixer, L’Homme de Kiev, I will be reviewing soon as well). I think the latter story is directly inspired from Philip Roth’s smuggling of Eastern European literature in the mid 70s during Communism.