Friday, November 11, 2005

39. The Fixer by Bernard Malamud

The Fixer book pictureI picked this one up because The Assistant by the same author was on the Time top 100 list, but they didn't have it in the library. I read that that one, this one and a third were considered Malamud's classics and that he was considered a classic writer of Jewish literature. Thought I should know more about him.

The Fixer is about a poor Jew in Tsarist Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. He lives in a small village and decides to go to Kiev. By luck, he gets a job in a brick factory in a part of town where Jews are forbidden. A small child is brutally murdered and the Fixer is framed for it, his Judaism revealed and is the main reason he is scapegoated.

The rest of the book is him in jail, awaiting an indictment, being treated more and more cruelly. The terrible things that are done to him, and the anti-Semitism portrayed is almost farcical. Unfortunately, it rings very true. I don't know much about the history of this period. The Fixer inspires me to learn more. You hear so much about the Nazi persecution of the Jews and only rare references to the pogroms in Russia. My own great-grandparents fled Byelorussia in 1905 to come to Canada.

But the way Russia is portrayed in The Fixer is shocking. People are easily convinced that a Jew would kidnap a small boy, bleed him ritually in order to drink his blood in a religious ceremony. He's separated out from the rest of the prisoners, kept under constant guard, chained to the wall. High-ranking priests give evidence that Jewish rituals that require Christian blood. It's the kind of book that makes you very angry when you read it. It is almost to the point where you start to feel towards the Russians as they seem to feel in the book towards the Jews! This made me a bit suspicious of the bent of the book, though I think it is much more complex than just a polemic against Russian anti-Semitism. One thing that I am convinced of, every time I read a Russian novel or a book about Russia, is that Russians may have the consistently most brutal history towards themselves.

As a novel, it is engrossing and moving. You spend a lot of time with the fixer's (or Yakov Bok, which is his name) thoughts, which I usually find boring. But he goes over his past and questions the value of god and suffering in the world in a way that gets into your soul without you having to do a lot of intellectual struggling as a reader. I'm not sure what conclusion to make, though I would say there is some teeny hope for humanity (or Jewmanity, at least) but it is buried way down deep in a mountain of suffering.

Note that this review is informed only by the book. I go now to do some internet research on Malamud and what others have to say about The Fixer.

[10 minutes later: Okay, just found out this book was based on a true story. Holy shit.]

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