Flawed Genius

This is my review of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon.

What would have happened if a long-forgotten proposal in 1940 to give the Jews a temporary homeland in Alaska had come to pass? How will the Americans deal with the prospect of having to absorb millions of Jews who have failed to emigrate in time when the "Reversion of Sitka" occurs after the agreed sixty years are up?

In what first appears to be a Chandler-type cynical detective thriller, but which twists at times into a Bashevis Singer evocation of the culture of the Jewish shtetl, or a soft-centred rom-com-soap of family life, Chabron sets free his vivid imagination to create in some detail the world of "the Frozen Chosen" in an incongruous ambiance of halibut factories, cherry pie and vast pine forests.

The stereotypical antihero Detective Landsman, driven to drink through grief over his lost child and estranged wife, is still sufficiently professional to care about the death of a drug addict in what looks like a "cold-blooded execution". His often unauthorised investigations lead him into the archaic world of a "black hat rebbe" or rabbi who bears close resemblance to a mafia boss. The rather thin plot meanders to the denouement with the reader in my case mostly hooked by the sparkling pyrotechnics of Chabron's original prose, although at times his bold verbal experiments fall flat, or fizzle out, so that I can understand why this book has divided opinion quite sharply.

Many readers have complained about the frequent Yiddish words peppering the text. Although I found that they add a flavour and music to the prose, and you can usually guess what they mean, it was informative but too distracting to keep looking them up, so I agree that there is a case for brief footnotes. Similarly, the many references to Jewish culture could have been explained in an appendix e.g. the Tzadik ha-Dor or Messiah expected once in every generation, or the fascinating "boundary maven" whose job it is to define with lines of string the "eruvs" or areas which enable orthodox Jews "to get round the Sabbath ban on carrying in a public place, and walk to shul with a couple of Alka-Seltzers in your pocket, and it isn't a sin".

This book is riddled with wry humour of questionable taste, and is often very funny and clever, but also poignant. It is perhaps too long, and self-indulgent in its lack of editing. The author sidetracks too much into minor scenes and descriptions, loses the plot in the sinister wilderness of the Pearl Strait but glosses so quickly over some of the main facts that I had to reread bits to check I hadn't missed something.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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