Visions of Paradise

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay was one of my favorite novels of the past decade, so I approached The Yiddish Policemen’s Union with considerable anticipation. The novel was a combination alternate history / noir mystery told in Chabon’s typically fine language that is itself worthwhile reading.

The novel is set in Sitka, Alaska, a Jewish settlement since their relocation there during World War II and the remaining Jews were driven out of Israel in 1948. Except the Jewish relocation was originally set for 60 years, and it has never been made permanent, thus is due to end in a few months as most Jews prepare for another relocation to places such as nearby Canada, Argentina and Madagascar.

The protagonists are two sour homicide detectives Berko and Landsman trying to solve the inexplicable murder of a drug-addicted member of the local chess club who was not only a chess-playing prodigy but might also be the Messiah. Berko is half-Indian, who control most of the land surrounding Sitka, while Landsman’s father was a devoted chessplayer who inadvertently turned his son rabidly against the game. The novel’s involvement with chess, while a major aspect, tends to be less passionate than most novels of this type because of Landsman’s disillusionment with the game. The two detectives investigate the underbelly of Sitka and the eccentric members of the chess club as their superior, who happens to be Landsman’s former wife, insists that their unsolved twelve cases must be flagged as closed before the U.S. marshall takes over her office in another two months.

Chabon manages the rare trick of writing some very intriguing scenes–Landsman’s visit with the Rebbe of the Verbover sect who are the novel’s equivalent of mobsters, his “visit” to the Youth Camp–without losing the novel’s main focus, which is the search for the murderer. As in many genre mysteries, the investigation gradually broadens into conspiracy theory as Landsman uncovers evidence that the murder is only a small aspect of a much wider plot involving the would-be Messiah.

But Chabon has a higher goal than solely writing about a mystery. He is interested in relationships, both that of specific characters–Landsman with his former wife, his partner Berko with his father, the murdered man with his parents–and, to a lesser extent, the various relationships of the Jews of Sitka with each other. He also tries to create a realistic setting, a job of world-building which is one of the key facets of good alternate history. All of these goals Chabon does with varying degrees of success and no blatant failures.

One of the novel’s strengths is its immersion in Yiddish culture and terminology, a richness which helps create the setting and increases its level of interest. Admittedly there were times I did not totally understand the meaning of a particular word or phrase, but those moments were rare, and I was usually able to understand it through its context.

There were some weakness in the novel, primarily Landsman’s uncanny ability to be rescued from several dangerous situations in the most unlikely ways, deus ex machina moments in a novel immersed in religious belief. They were minor distractions more than anything else, and since the novel’s main focus was the characters and setting, those moments were jarring without being major hindrances.

Overall, I enjoyed The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and recommend it highly to fans of alternate history, noir mysteries, and Chabon fans.


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