Michael Chabon – The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Title: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Author: Michael Chabon
Year: 2007

These are strange times to be a Jew, even more so in a world where the state of Israel failed miserably and where many of the world’s Jews ended up in Alaska after the implementation of the Slattery Report, and especially when the lease of that frostbitten piece of land is coming to an end, and Jews soon will need to look elsewhere for some place to live. In the final weeks of the Jewish settlement in Sitka, a young man who was once deemed to be a future messiah, is found shot dead in his hotel room with a mysteriously set-up chess board on his bedside table. Alcoholic and decadent policeman Meyer Landsman starts investigating, sometimes with the support of his half-Jew half-Indian companion Berko Shemets. However, the investigation soon spins out of control and Landsman is relieved of his badge and gun, but he doggedly continues to follow the trail with reckless abandon, discovering ever more unsettling truths as he goes a long.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is the first book I read by Michael Chabon, but I can promise you that it will not be the last one. Even though I am normally not a fan of detective stories, this one has two things that I like very much, one of them truly unique. To begin with, I fancy the alternate-history genre. Admittedly, apart from the Jews inhabiting Alaska instead of Israel, the alternate history elements of this novel are not that prominent, but the are enough to earn my liking. This is an awesome genre that allows the author to mix reality with fiction in a way which appears both realistic and fantastic at the same time.

Even more important than that, however, is Chabon’s fantastic language. His style is truly unique and reminds me of no other author whatsoever. He uses words in the most unconventional, but yet effective way. His metaphors are sometimes beyond description, but most of the time they are entertaining, well-written and sometimes they also succeed in giving the reader a good idea about what the author wants to describe. Here is an example from page 135 which might be said to be typical for the author’s style:

Rabbi Heskel Shpilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running. A little kid lumped him together, a mob of kids, blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man. They clumped the dough of his arms and legs to the dough of his body, then jammed his head on top. A millionaire could cover a Rolls-Royce with the fine black silk-and-velvet expanse of the rebbe’s frock coat and trousers. It would require the brain strength of the eighteen greatest sages in history to reason through the arguments against and in favor of classifying the rebbe’s massive bottom as either a creature of the deep, a man-made structure, or an unavoidable act of God. If he stands up, or if he sits down, it doesn’t make any difference in what you see.

This kind of imaginative and highly creative language permeates the books. Chabon’s language is always interesting, albeit not always meaningful. Details, such as the recurring allusions to Chess, adds to the overall rating. Chabon also employs a mixture of Yiddish, Sitka slang and English, which works very well (however, this can not be said to be a major part of the novel in the same way as it is for, say, A Clockwork Orange).

In addition to this, the characters who inhabit the world of this novel are truly masterpieces. They are multi-faceted and highly credible portrayals of human beings, but are still very interesting and entertaining. I especially like Landsman himself, mostly because of his refusal to do what sane people would do in his place, and because of his sense of humour. This, and much more, makes me smile and laugh a lot when I read The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a valuable addition to a novel which would have felt heavy otherwise (literally speaking, the novel spans 400 pages).

That being said, the book is not perfect. The plot itself is interesting and Chabon does his best to deepen it with layers of chess, Judaism and Alaskan landscape, but it still is not even close to the brilliance of his language. Therefore, I felt a little bit disappointed in the end, and considered giving the novel only four snails. However, looking back at the novel as a whole, the good parts are so outstandingly good that I have no choice but to give four and a half snails to The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

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