Hard-Boiled Speculative Fiction—in Yiddish! (a review of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union)

The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael ChabonJews, Alaska, chess, and murder: usually these subjects don’t have a lot in common. That is until you read Michael Chabon’s new novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (2007) where these elements come together to create the core of this quirky noir story.

Chabon’s novel is based on an interesting conceit: What if Jews had not been able to settle in Israel after World War II and, instead, were granted temporary residency on the Alaskan panhandle?

The original plan was set into motion around 1939 by Harold Ickes (Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior), in response to a plea from a Jewish community in the town of Neustadt requesting permission to settle in Alaska and escape the imminent threat of Nazi Germany.

The settlement was proposed in the Alaska Territory as a way to work around the United States’ existing immigration quotas, but fell through due in large part to a lack of political support and backlash from Alaskans who feared the prospect of foreign settlers for myriad reasons ranging from racism to increased competition for jobs.

In the novel, however, Ickes was successful in bringing his plan to fruition and Jewish refugees were given the Federal District of Sitka as a temporary settlement. That was sixty years before the start of Chabon’s novel when Sitka is getting ready to revert to the United States leaving the fate of the Alaskan Jews largely unknown.

Amazingly, all of these events are just a backdrop for Chabon’s actual story: an edgy murder mystery.

When Meyer Landsman moved into a local flophouse nine months ago he wasn’t looking to do much more than spend some quality time with his bottle of slivovitz and “the shot glass that he is currently dating” until Sitka finally reverts. Landsman’s plans change abruptly when the body of a local chess prodigy turns up in the hotel.

For reasons that elude even him, Landsman feels obligated to investigate the murder despite pressure from his new boss/ex-wife and other higher ups to drop the case. As the investigation continues, Landsman and Berko Shemets, his half-Tlingit partner, find themselves sucked into the underworld of the black hat community of the Verbover Jews and their nefarious undertakings.

Chabon also throws in several conspiracies, a cover-up scheme, a pseudo-terrorist plot, and lots of Yiddish phrases just to keep things interesting. This last touch is because the novel has the unique characteristic of being a novel written in English about characters who do not speak English: they all speak Yiddish instead.

So The Yiddish Policeman’s Union does require a bit of energy to read. At first, nothing is going to make sense. But Chabon eventually pulls it all together. The Yiddish phrases slowly start to become comprehensible, as do the various subplots Chabon incorporates into this very unique story.

Chabon’s prose has a strange charm, which might be expected from an author who won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” a novel whose plot largely centers around a comic book hero. The narration is hard-edged, often gritty, but always with a smile threatening to form. (Jews from south of Sitka are referred to as “Mexicans.”)

From the first line, this story will grab a reader’s attention. Written in the present tense, it has an immediacy fitting for a book that tries to recreate the style of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective stories in a Jewish community.

Chabon starts off strong with a vision that he vividly crafts on the page. This vision begins to falter in the second half of the novel as Chabon becomes wrapped up in the complicated conventions common to noir stories. The explanations for several conspiracies come off as convoluted, if not entirely out of nowhere. The novel’s ending, too, is not as strong as its opening.

Shortcomings aside, Chabon has done a great service to the genre of speculative (or “what if?”) fiction by showing that it is possible to write a serious S. F. novel.

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