Jews with Swords: Gentlemen of the Road – Michael Chabon

The gentlemen of the road are an odd couple, the thin, pale, Zelikman, a physician with his needle-like sword and the dark, burly Amram, a former soldier with his ax named “Defiler of Your Mother.” Their dissimilarity fuels their performances, spectacular duels over, say, a hat, that incite heavy betting; such moments offer opportunities for the canny and unscrupulous.

Other than destroying Zelikman’s favorite hat, everything was going according to plan until they are found out by Filaq, a Khazar youth. Filaq is not interested in exposing their confidence game, but turns out to be on the lam, hunted by agents of Buljan, the new Khazar Bek who had killed his predecessor, Filaq’s father. Owing partly to their natural heroism and partly to the need to retrieve Zelikman’s horse, Hillel, the gentlemen of the road follow Filaq all the way to Khazaria where they find themselves at the heart of a revolution that they have no claim to.

Gentlemen of the Road is a fun adventure story spun out with Chabon’s linguistic flourish. It holds certain positions when it comes to revolution and equality and gender, but does so with a light touch. In the afterward, Chabon explains that he wanted to write a story in a time and place where Jews could wield swords (hence the Khazars, a tribe of nomads who allegedly converted to Judaism), but even this central aspect to the story is not essential to the plot. These are mostly Jews who are not particularly driven by their Judaism.

The sum is a pleasant enough story, but one that is fluffy and insubstantial. It was a good palate cleanser from the emotional power A Tale for the Time Being, but not nearly approaching the level of the other Chabon novel I’ve read, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

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Next up, my partner asked me to finish reading Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam books so that she can talk with me about them, so I’m now reading The Year of the Flood.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon

And just last week, amid the panic and feathers of a kosher slaughterhouse on Zhitlovsky Avenue, a chicken turned on the shochet as he raised his ritual knife and announced, in Aramaic, the imminent advent of Messiah. According to the Tog, the miraculous chicken offered a number of startling predictions, though it neglected to mention the soup in which, having once more fallen silent as God Himself, it afterward featured. Even in the more casual study of the record, Landsman thinks, would show that strange times to be a Jew have almost always been, as well, strange times to be a chicken.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which I finished nearly a week ago, is an idiosyncratic, alternate history mystery novel. The District of Sitka, an autonomous region adjacent Alaska, is the temporary safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany and elsewhere in the world. Temporary haven dragged on, for some sixty years, but now Reversion is looming. Although there was an abortive attempt to establish the country of Israel, most of the world’s Jews chose the cold safety of Sitka, which is became a densely populated city composed of widely disparate people from all over the world, loosely unified by the common language of Yiddish. Reversion, and the likelihood that most citizens of Sitka will not be allowed to remain, has tensions running high.

Meyer Landsmann, for the time being a homicide detective with Sitka police, is a mess. He is an alcoholic, divorced, living in a slum of a hotel and without either family or prospects after Reversion, and now his ex-wife Bina has been placed as his immediate superior, tasked with closing all open cases. But he is barely prepared for the mess he finds himself in when one of the residents of his neighbors, a heroin addict and former chess prodigy, is murdered and his new chief summarily closes the case. But Landsman becomes obsessed and, with the help of his partner Berko Shemets, chases every possible clue anyway and soon discovers that the dead man was one of the Verbover clan, an ultra-orthodox crime syndicate that is, oddly, the only group unconcerned with pending Reversion, and was widely thought to be the Tzadik ha-Dor, a potential messiah. This case leads Landsman into a tangled web of conspiracies that expose the seedy underbelly of the Jewish communities in Sitka.

I put down The Yiddish Policeman’s Union simultaneously enamored of the book and unsure that I want to read any of Chabon’s other novels.This book is remarkably idiosyncratic in a way that reminded me of a cross between the best of Joseph Heller and of Gore Vidal’s Live from Golgotha, but with the atmosphere of noir. It actually took me a while to get into YPU, what with its treatment of a radically different post-World War Two world (for instance, the war ends after Berlin is destroyed with a nuclear bomb) as utterly normal, its frequent deployment of yiddish phrases found in a glossary, and that it extremely particular in its references. None of these are bad and I found that once I got into the book it was both refreshing and provocative, making it fully deserving of its accolades, but that initial buy-in took time.

At the outset, YPU seemed like a clever detective story with the window-dressing of a humanizing story about chess fanatics and the backdrop of momentous changes, but it is so much more. Chabon builds by drips and hints a rich world that, in the best noir style, is filled with characters, each of which with their own motivations. At the heart of this seething, tangled mess are the little relationships, with Meyer Landsman the broken cop who lives for his job and is kept on his feet by people who, for better and for worse, care about him while he seeks some measure of salvation in caring for the young man killed in his building.

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Next up, I finished reading André Malraux’s The Conquerors about the 1925 revolution in Hong Kong and just started Last Words from Montmarte, a posthumous, postmodern, epistolary novel by Qiu Miaojin, a Taiwanese lesbian author. How is that for a mouthful? I am also in the middle of reading Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, which I am struggling to get into.