I’m a big fan of Chabon’s writing. When my book club read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay some years ago, I didn’t think I would like it because the subject didn’t interest me. However, I was so caught up by the writing that I ended up loving the book. Recently I read (and blogged about) his book of essays, Maps and Legends, one of which has to do with how he came to write this book. Apparently, he stumbled across a phrase book called Say It in Yiddish and was utterly taken with the notion that somewhere there might exist a country or even a town where Yiddish is the primary language and business is conducted in Yiddish by everyone—gas station attendants, hotel clerks, police officers. Where could that be?
This mystery, then, takes place in fictional Sitka, Alaska, a temporary Jewish colony established in 1948. In reality, such an Alaskan safe haven was actually considered by Roosevelt, but of course support for the state of Israel in then Palestine won out. In Chabon’s alternate universe, the District of Sitka is about to revert to Alaskan control, and the Jewish population dispersed. Our moral center in this atmosphere of chaos and fear is Meyer Landsman, a homicide detective who can barely keep his own life together since the collapse of his marriage, leaving him with only alcohol and work to hold onto. Landsman and his half-Tlingit partner investigate the murder of one of Landman’s neighbors.
I like mysteries, and the plotting here is great: twists and turns that shed new light on the clues and put them in a different relationship to each other. As always, Chabon’s writing is a thing of beauty, with marvelous images such as “In the rain the wind shakes rain from the flaps of its overcoat.” Yet, for some reason, I never felt engaged with the story; rather I felt that I was observing it from the outside. However, I must say that the other members of my book club were thoroughly caught up in it.
A friend told me about a puppet show she saw recently, where there was no theatre or curtain. Instead, a man stood operating his puppets in full view of the audience. As a result, she focused on his expertise rather than the story being enacted by the puppets. This, I believe, is what happened to me here: I was so busy admiring Chabon’s cleverness that I never really connected to the story or to Landsman. Perhaps as well, I thought Landsman too much the stereotype of the noir detective. Some of the other characters seemed more complex and interesting: his ex-wife, particularly in her efforts to balance work and personal life, and his partner, particularly in his relationship with his father.
My book club discussed the religious sects described in the book, as well as how some fundamentalist factions in various religions seem to want to “return” their culture to a former time, a past that appears less complicated, when it was easier to be good. Nostalgia for a golden past is part of the human condition. All paradises are lost paradises. The modern world can be terrifying and, like many others, I take comfort in mysteries. There, wrongs are righted and, as P.D. James has said, we are reassured that we live in a moral universe.
In his essay, Chabon goes on to wonder what Europe would look like today if those millions of Jews had never been killed, if they had gone on to have grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Perhaps there would be rural towns where Yiddish is the first language. Perhaps he would have cousins in these towns whom he could visit and family roots he could search out. What does it mean, Chabon asks, to come from a culture that no longer exists and from a language almost no one speaks anymore? Recalling my mother’s obsession with her genealogical researches and her pride in how far back she could trace her family history, I wonder about how we define our identities when we are stripped of language and history. Can this loss ever be freeing, making it easier to engage in the peculiarly American pastime of reinventing ourselves? Or does it always cause alienation, leaving us longing to recreate a past, even a mythical past, where we might feel at home?