Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Yiddish Policemen's Union - Micheal Chabon

The genre of crime/mystery fiction seems to have fascinated our more reputed writers of general fiction in the modern era(I use 'general' here instead of 'literary' since the latter sounds snobbish). From Borges to Eco to Orhan Pamuk several writers have written works based on this genre. But can we classify 'The Name Of the Rose' or 'My Name is Red' as conventional crime fiction? The base is crime yes, but the writers expand the boundaries, in fact tear open conventions of crime fiction so that their works become a new genre of sorts themselves. We mostly see the inventiveness and even playfulness of the writers when they attempt such works. The crime becomes a secondary part in the works. But a true blue crime fiction or noir? They are pretty rare. Of such works Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn) and Micheal Chabon (The Yiddish Policemen's Union) tend to tread the path of hardboiled crime fiction genre. The authors bring in their own twist to the genre, while not deviating too much from the established conventions of the genre.
The Yiddish Policemen's Union starts of a alternate history premise. It is set in 'Sitka in Alaska'. The premise is that at the end of world war II, Jews were settled in Sitka instead of at Jerusalem. This is apparently based on a actual proposal about settling Jews in America, that came up in the 1940's. (It was not carried out in the end). Chabon starts off with this unique setting. Sitka is now a Jewish settlement, with the Jews living together with the native americans of the area. The main protagonist is 'Meyer Landsman', a typical hardboiled police detective with all the traits that such a detective has in novels. He is alcoholic, divorced (his wife is his superior), does not play by the rules and what not, basically a pest who some how gets things done his way and for that has to be put up with. A murder has occurred in the hotel that he is staying. The victim is Mendel, who was supposed to be a  'Tzaddik ha-Dor'. (This refers to a person who could be the potential messiah for the Jews. Such a person is supposed to be born every generation). The story kicks off as Meyer starts the investigation.
Chabon also weaves in the story of the entire jewish community which is facing another exile. The lease given to them for Sitka is set to expire in the next few months and the American government would not renew it. People are applying to go to other countries or to migrate within America itself. Chabon paints a picture of an almost claustrophobic and insular Jewish community who are very tightly integrated and at despair about the future. Suffice to say that Meyer is not worried about it. As a typical fictional detective, he has his own emotional baggage to carry (his sister's death, his relationship with his deceased father) that solving crime seems to be the only way out for him to survive that baggage. Mendel is found to be the son of a rebbe who is the head of one of most powerful crime syndicate in Sitka. He antagonizes Mendel's father and as a result is told to lay off from investigating the crime. He continues with it and as a result is suspended from work. Being the classic stubborn type he still continues with his investigation in private and starts piecing together the details about Mendel's life.
Along with the normal set pieces of crime fiction, Chabon gives a moving account of Mendel's story, his glorious childhood to youth when he was revered by most people who came in contact with him, the expectancy of great things from him and his fall from grace just before his marriage. He runs away from home before his marriage and his father disowns him. We get a hint that his sexual orientation could have played a role in it, but it's not explicit. At this point, we find ourself empathizing with Mendel more, how would it have been to carry the burden of an entire race as being the chosen one, being under scrutiny always, always expected to be perfect. It is in these pages, that Chabon pushes the boundary of crime fiction to something more. I found myself transfixed by Mendel's story up to the point and the crime took a back seat. More than Meyer, Mendel fascinated me. (To digress here a bit, the victim in 'My Name Is Red' did not affect me as much, though he even talks to us in the beginning. This again could be because, the author there was more concerned about things other than the victim or the mystery, namely the Ottoman art and the nature of painting itself).
During the course of the investigations, Meyers gets shot at, imprisoned, has a chase, gets beaten and bruised, but still on the move and determined to get the end. (Your typical set pieces). He also comes to know some new details about his Sister's death. He uncovers a diabolical plot, but is not able to divulge it. He is released on making that promise. Ironically it does not seem to have anything to do with Mendel's murder. Meyer reunites with his wife, but is still nagged by the thought of the murder being unsolved. Finally he cracks it, which is quite surprising to say the least. The novel ends with Meyer ready to face life wherever it takes him in the upcoming exodus. 
The novel worked for me as a generic fiction and not as pure crime fiction. Chabon paints an minutely detailed picture of the Jewish community in exile, their quirks, makes his characters flawed in more than one ways, which in turn makes them more believable. Meyer, with his template habits could be a worthy successor to Philip Marlowe. The relationship between the natives of Alaska and the Jews is also brought out well, in some cases humorously. One sees both the groups being racist towards each other, in an almost unconscious manner, which is bit ironic when we consider the Jews being a bit racist in their day to day life. Chabon uses some beautiful similes throughout the novel, one other thing we cannot find in your conventional crime fiction.  But these same things hinder the novel from being a great crime fiction. At some point, you just want to move ahead in the story instead of getting more character portraits. At the end I was not too interested in the murderer, but was caught up in the individual characters lives. This is surely a triumph of his story telling, but from  the perspective of a crime fiction aficionado, it was a bit of a letdown, though the author is not the reason for it. If you approach the novel as a generic one, with not much expectations on the crime front, you would like this. This is probably the closest one could get while trying to straddle 2 genres, without disappointing much in either. For hardcore crime fictions fans however, it better to stick to Raymond Chandler, Henning Mankell, Ian Rankin and the other masters. 

Chabon has also tried out the intermixing of genres with his 'The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay' which concerns comic books juxtaposed with the second world war and the holocaust. The life of a comic book hero rescuing Jews contrasts with the reality of that time. 

Micheal Chabon's website is 

No comments:

Post a Comment