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Book Report: The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Your Humble Blogger’s previous experience with Michael Chabon’s books was not entirely positive. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay didn’t live up to its wonderful first third, and The Final Solution did nothing for me whatsoever. So when I started The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, I was prepared to be disappointed. When it started out well, I acknowledged that it started out well, but fully expected the quality to decline precipitously. When the language was vastly enjoyable, I enjoyed it vastly, but warily.

And when, inevitably, the last third of the book let me down from the heights of the first third and the middle third, rather than being disappointed, Your Humble Blogger was relieved that it wasn’t worse. And, in fact, it only declines from excellent (perhaps great) to pretty good, which is much better than going from good to lousy. Depending on how much you hate red-heifer talk. Usually, the moment a red heifer comes into it, I fling the book across the room. Not so bad, this time, and (for those who do fling it across the room at the first reddish cow) although it does signal the deterioration of the plot, the book itself holds up, despite.

I do wonder, however, what it is like to read the book as a non-Jew. Is it harder to place yourself into Mr. Chabon’s long dark Sitka of the soul? Is the sense of the uncanny derived from my recognition of the rhythms of Yiddish?

Mr. Chabon, by the way, struggles with and succeeds against one of the problems of speculative fiction as well as some other kinds of fiction: the book is written and read in English, but is conceptually in another language, one which neither the author nor the reader know well enough to make the book actually in that language. In this case it’s Yiddish, but it’s often enough Galactic Standard, or Russian, or R’peuphid. The characters occasionally use English, and that is indicated in the (actually English, but conceptually Yiddish) text around it. The reader has to do a kind of pseudo-translation, reading as if you were translating, or as if you were suddenly become fluent in that other language. Only, of course, there is no other language, there’s just the English text. It’s an awkward thing, and must be a major annoyance for a writer (just as it is often a major annoyance for YHB), but Mr. Chabon succeeds at it. In my opinion. But is that due to my familiarity with Yiddish (tho’ I’m far from fluent—I know enough German and enough Hebrew and listen to enough Klezmer that although I can’t actually understand what’s being said, I can follow it, if you see what I mean), and would somebody who had never heard a Yiddish curse have the same opinion? I don’t know.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Mm. I'd love to hear what you think of _Summerland_. I loved it. Haven't read Kavalier and Clay, and hated _Mysteries of Pittsburgh_. Am beginning, with hesitancy, _Wonder Boys_, worried that it will be much more Pittsburghian than Summerlandish.

As a non-Yiddish speaker (but klezmer enjoyer), I also think Chabon succeeded in the whole not-writing-in-English-in-English thing. Although I'm also quite certain that there are layers I didn't get, based on having looked up a couple of things. (Shammeses and shoyfers, mostly.) Why are rookie cops latkes? I wonder if that isn't a failure of my cop lore...

Perhaps my lack of familiarity with the specifics of red heifers helped my opinion of the end of this book. I found it satisfying, if not quite as moving as I was preparing myself for. But what is it with book endings lately? I've read numerous books recently that I thoroughly enjoyed, right up until a disappointing end. Sometimes it's great even right through the end--only to be destroyed by a bad epilogue. Ick, I say, and ish da.

Sadly, Wikipedia is not helping me sort out what "red heifer" would mean in a literary-criticism sense. Is it that one character is so marked by purity that they are clearly -- clearly! -- doomed to be sacrificed? To the point of eye-rolling? This is me putting context clues together haphazardly and waiting for you to interrupt me... (oh, that's right, I have to hit post first).

Certain groups of Jews and certain groups of Christians, being focused on the endtimes, look for the birth (or discovery) of a red heifer, unblemished and perfect, as a sign that it is time for the Third Temple to be rebuilt. For a Cohen to begin taking up the priesthood again, it is necessary (they think) for a red heifer to be the first sacrifice.

Every ten or fifteen years, there is a candidate for red-heifer-ness, but it always turns out to have a black hair or two, or some sort of blemish. About ten years ago there was a breeding program that at one point claimed to have produced a red heifer, but as far I can tell, the world didn't end.

Anyway, this heifer business has turned up in several books and stories (although I can't think of any at the moment), where somebody attempts to bring about the eschaton by creating a perfect red heifer, sometimes with advanced genetic engineering, etc, etc.

I prefer the one where they create a ruminant pig.


Mmm, kosher bacon.

The language thing is indeed an issue in speculative fiction (and other fiction), but for me it's primarily only an issue when (a) the language calls attention to itself, or (b) I'm familiar with some aspect of the language under discussion that the author isn't aware of.

For example, awhile back I was reading a friend's unpublished novel in which some Japanese people were calling roll in alphabetical order. I don't actually know what order roll is traditionally called in Japanese, but I think it's unlikely to be in ABC order according to the Romanized version of the family name.

This kind of thing has come up in editing at times as well, when English prose that's theoretically in some other language expresses things in a way that I'm dubious about users of that other language using. Authors often say "this is translated" at the beginning and then neglect to think about the translation thing again throughout the rest of the story.

But in most contexts, I'm pretty willing to accept the literary convention of pretend-translation without really thinking about it.

In TYPU, the translation stuff calls attention to itself every time a character switches to English, either (most often) for crude profanity or because it's a conversation with an outsider. There are other times that it brought itself to my attention, sometimes because of an untranslated word or two ("Look at the head on that shaigets") or because a non-Sitka character is making brief appearance.

It also occurs to me that making the novel in Yiddish denotes a substantial change in the world; having the Jewish state in Alaska, he implies, means that Hebrew remains a dead language, used only for prayer and study, not for conversation. It also highlights (to me) the absence of Sephardim. There are no Jews in TYPU's Palestine, but it's not clear (as I remember it) whether there are Jews in Cairo and Damascus, in Tehran and Baghdad.


I actually knew that background on the red heifer -- I'm still not sure what it means in the literary sense.

Unless you're saying that the book contains a literal red heifer born on a farm in Alaska? I suppose that would make (too much) sense.

Yes, sorry, unclear. It's a plot point. It's much like, oh, in space opera when somebody discovers that there's an asteroid headed straight for us! Oh, please.

You know Jed's famous list? There's a sense in which any individual reader develops an idiosyncratic version of that list for their own sources-of-annoyance points, I think. And, naturally, as individual readers tend to read a lot within their fields of particular interest, they hit a bunch of overused plot points that aren't necessarily overused everywhere, but have been presented to that individual reader two or three times too often. And when a writer presents those plot points as if they were clever and original, well, it gets right up a reader's nose, doesn't it?


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