Monday, 20 December 2010

Review of The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobsen (winner of the Man Booker Prize)

Howard Jacobsen's novel is an exploration of 'Jewishness'. Three of its four central characters — two widowers and a single woman — are Jewish, and the fourth isn't, but wants to be. Really, he wants to be anything other than the person he is. He's an intelligent man but utterly indecisive and unable to commit to anything. He becomes increasingly irritating to the reader, as no doubt he's meant to — a bit like Kenneth Branagh's TV version of 'Wallander' (for those who followed it). He wants to be someone with a secure identity, snuggled up in a blanket of Jewishness. But he also wants to be part of a slightly exotic, exclusive, √©lite sort of community, with its hidden understandings and its own language. At one point, he is shocked to be accused of anti-semitism, but actually there's probably truth in the accusation : he wants 'Jewishness' for purely selfish reasons, because he's a deeply self-centred man.

He's the only Gentile that really features in the book at all apart from his estranged wives and their sons, and the (deceased) wife of his friend — who had converted to Judaism. I found this rather disturbing. Is the book a sort of parable, in which this man is supposed to represent the Gentile world? It would have been interesting, and more true to life, to have seen some non-Jewish (even Christian) characters who were secure in their religious identity, rather than confused and envious of the strong sense of identity shared (despite their differences) by the Jewish characters in the book. Such people do exist.

For me, Christians are, anyway, 'Jews by grace'; adopted children of their parent people, the Jews. It's true that Paul the apostle never convinced the Jewish leadership of his day of this, and that for two thousand years Christians have behaved as if their 'faith parents' were aliens, but the underlying sense in this book is that, indeed, Jews can never escape being a special, unique, rather alien group. But if Christians are 'Jews by grace', with a shared early history, then this is less true. It would have been good to see the idea reflected somewhere. As it is, Christian faith goes unnoticed in the book, which is a pity since Christian attitudes towards Judaism have changed radically in the last 50 years (although there are pockets where the old attitudes survive).

The arguments between the characters (which happen against a backdrop of grief, since two of the characters are recent widowers) all orbit round the question of what a Jew should make of the present Israeli state. This (Jacobsen wants us to know) is an enormously complex and emotive issue, not least for Jews, overshadowed as it inevitably is with the history of the Holocaust. At one key point, the character who is so angered and dismayed by what the Israeli government is doing to the Palestinians that he chairs an organisation called 'ASHamed Jews', rounds on a questioner at a public meeting saying "How dare you, a non-Jew, . . even think you can tell Jews what sort of country they may live in, when it is you, a European Gentile, who made a separate country for Jews necessary?"

This argument swirls round the book endlessly, until I was left with a sense that Jacobsen wanted me to back off from even thinking about it . . . as if he was saying "this is a complex and emotive issue, and Jews themselves have so many strong and contradictory feelings about it that there's nothing you could think that we haven't already thought." And there's just that little uneasy feeling that he thinks non-Jews have forfeited their right to have an opinion about it, anyway.

It was some time after reading it that I found myself reflecting that there is no character in the book that really expresses the dangerous fundamentalism that drives the Zionist settlers in the West Bank. There's a passing reference to a settler who, on being evicted by the Israeli government, has shot an Arab family on a bus in Israel. But the only character in the book who reflects on this believes that "thou shalt not kill is emblazoned on the hearts of Jews", so "he is not one of ours". The trouble is, he is. These people have a major influence on the current Israeli government, which is actually doing very little to discourage settlers. They cannot be dismissed so easily. I'm sure that it is indeed very complex — but actually, some things are simple, and much of what is being done to the Palestinians is not excused by saying 'it's complex'. It's simply wrong, and needs to stop — complexity is no excuse.

Plot-wise (for those who like a story), the book starts promisingly; but the plot gets less and less interesting, and eventually peters out. That's quite a fashionable thing for novels to do these days, but it wouldn't satisfy those who prefer Mills & Boon endings. However, I have to say that it is beautifully written and, at least in the first half, very funny.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Missing the Beauty

From the Washington Post, a story of what happened when one of the finest violinists in the world went busking on the Washington DC Metro. Making me wonder how much beauty I fail to see.

As an occasional busker myself, the one thing that didn't happen (which happens to me) is people coming to chat with you while you're playing, as if the playing requires no effort or concentration. As if you're playing a CD.