26 October 2007

Thoughts on fate: "The Yiddish Policemen's Union", by Michael Chabon

Just finished Michael Chabon's new novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, a fun read based on a great premise: Following WW2, instead of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the US, realizing it needs people to exploit the oil fields of Alaska, establishes a Jewish protectorate in Sitka, Alaska. (Yes, this thought was really once considered by US officials, though not seriously.) The following 60 years raises a distinct Yiddish culture from the frozen mud of the northwest frontier, complete with major cities, elusive city bosses, drugs and despair and family and love. Names like Meyer Landsman, Bina Gelbfish, Berko Shemets, Mendel Shpilman, and a Yiddish-English dialect reminiscent of the Tex-Mex spanglish of the American southwest decorate the usually compelling mystery of the murder of a potential Jewish Messiah.

The novel is set in the final months of the 60 year US lease of Sitka to the Jews, with most facing "reversion", or another forced diaspora with no where to go. This is a detective novel, one written in classic crime-novel style (I'd suppose since I really don't read these kinds of books). It reads like an old film noir, crime thriller with a wonderful ethnic twist. While not as great a book as Chabon's The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, it's still a good summer-afternoon-relax-in-the-hammock or late-night-with-a-bottle-wine kind of read.

Warning of a potential spoiler alert here since the passage that struck me most comes from the final pages of the book. While not giving away the plot or the mystery solved, it does bring out the book's theme, or at least the moral I'll carry along after reading....

"For days Landsman has been thinking that he missed his chance with Mendel Shpilman, that in their exile at the Hotel Zelmendorf, with even realizing, he blew his one shot at something like redemption. But there is no Messiah of Sitka. Landsman has no home, no future, no fate but Bina. The land that he and she were promised was bounded only by the fringes of their wedding canopy, by the dog-eared corners of their cards of membership in an international fraternity whose members carry their patrimony in a tote bag, their world on the tip of their tongue."

No home. No future. No fate but Bina...the lead character's ex-wife. How many times have I felt this way? That when all is said and done, my home, my future, my fate, is tied only to my wife and my family. All around us is the noise of life. Too often we look for something beyond, something bigger, greater, more profound, when really, it's about the people we bind our lives to, those with whom we create life and create a life together.

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