by Dax-Devlon Ross
Note: This is the first in a series of original reviews of past National Book Award winners that no one reads anymore.
A couple of weeks back I went hunting for a new novel. For a while now I’ve had a hard time finding contemporary novels that I want to read. I pick stuff up and just as easily put it back down. Everywhere I look these days people are reading one of the Stieg Larsson novels. His books may be perfectly fine and even “good” reads, but on principle I refuse to join the herd. Groupthink makes me nauseous. As happy as I am for the author, I get turned off by any book or series of books that the masses are reading. Call it literary snobbery. Call it intellectual stubbornness. Call it whatever you want. I don’t care. Whenever we allow our tastes to be shaped by the pop culture machine – and this includes Oprah – then we’re just being lazy. Part of the reading experience is finding the book. It’s not just following what everyone else is reading. It’s going to the goddamned store. It’s looking around. It’s listening to what’s happening inside at that moment and then deciding.
I was beginning to feel a little depressed by my prospects when I came across the modest selection of books by Bernard Malamud. I’d been meaning to read him for years but just hadn’t gotten around to it. I pulled The Fixer off the shelf and read the back cover:
Set in Tsarist Russia during a period of virulent anti-Semitism, the novel tells the story of Yakov Bok, a Jewish handyman blamed for the brutal murder of a young Russian boy. At the outset, Bok leaves his village to try his luck in Kiev, and after denying his Jewish identity, he finds himself working for a member of the anti-Semitic Black Hundreds Society. When the boy is found dead in a cave, drained of nearly all his blood, the Jews are accused of ritual murder. Arrested and imprisoned, Bok refuses to confess to a crime that he did not commit. Malamud said of the book: “Whatever else it had to be about, it had to be about how the idea of freedom grows in the mind of a man subjected to a grave injustice.”
Originally published in the midst of the Cold War – 1966 – Malamud was inspired to write The Fixer by the imprisonment and trial of Menahem Mendel Beilis, a Ukranian Jew, who was accused of ritual murder in 1911. Beilis was ultimately acquitted and, after immigrating to America, later published his own account of his ordeal.
Since my latest book is about a young man who is executed for three murders he very well may not have committed and I write a blog that highlights, among other things, the imperfections of our justice system, my mind has been almost exclusively on justice, jails and the nasty web of state-sanctioned deceit that can rob an innocent human being of their freedom. The only thing that frightens me more than being imprisoned is being imprisoned for a crime I did not commit. That is my version of hell.
The Fixer begins with the discovery of the boy’s body. In his room above the brick factory he oversees, Yakov reads the fanciful explanation – the ritualized bloodletting by Jews – in abject horror. For the past five months he’s been living under an assumed identity in a district forbidden to Jews. Now his worst fears have come to light. It’s only a matter of time before he’s outed.
Who is Yakov Bok anyway? And why should we care about his fate? After quickly reeling us into his protagonist’s impossible situation, Malamud transports us back to the shtetl Yakov abandoned five months earlier. Here’s the skinny on poor, luckless Yakov:
- Both of his parents died before he could walk
- He grew up in an orphanage
- He and his wife were unable to conceive
- She deserted him
- He is asthmatic
- He is a handyman – a fixer – in a community that can’t afford to pay him for his labor
- He’s lost his faith in a just God (“What do I get from him but a bang on the head and a stream of piss in my face”… “He doesn’t see us and doesn’t care.”)
- He is a young man ripe with bitterness
Unlike the whiny, pathetic, ineffectual, overprivileged misanthropes populating the pages of so many modern novels, Yakov’s life really has been one long calamity. Nothing has ever gone right for him, and from the moment he packs his meager belongings – some tools and a few books, one being the Selections from Spinoza – hops on his broken down carriage and gives his stubborn steed a thwack, we know nothing ever will. Yakov is the unfortunate misfit on whose sad, slumped shoulders all of life’s worst hardships are stacked. We hate to admit the Yakov Boks of the world exists because in a universe divinely ordered by a just God misfortune of this magnitude simply has no place.
Yakov Bok is peculiarly obsessed with the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. If he has any faith at all, it is in Spinoza’s view of God as, to quote Einstein, one who “reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”
After bumbling around in abject poverty for several days Yakov’s luck finally – mercifully – takes a turn when he discovers a drunken old man lying in the snow one night. Yakov assists the man and is rewarded the next day with a painting gig. Once completed, the drunkard offers him a modestly lucrative position at his brick factory. In addition to a handsome salary and a fairly leisurely existence, the position comes with an apartment—a free apartment! There’s just one catch. The drunkard is a rapid anti-Semite and the factory resides in a district Jews are barred from entering.
Yakov has a choice. Walk away from this golden but risky opportunity or take a chance that could alter his financial future. The temptation to pass (as a Russian) is too strong.
On the surface one could easily read Yakov’s choice as a betrayal of his people tantamount to an act of treason. Accordingly, his arrest and imprisonment could then be interpreted as cosmic payback or divine justice. If we elect to follow this line of reasoning, then Yakov is hardly a sympathetic character. And without sympathy or at the very least concern, one may as well stop reading.
However, a more plausible interpretation follows Baruch Spinoza’s determinism, which states that all that happens or will happen could not have unfolded in any other way. As for free will, Spinoza contended that humans have none. “In the Mind there is no absolute, or free, will, but the Mind is determined to will this or that by a cause which is also determined by another, and this again by another, and so to infinity.” The best that we can hope for is 1) an understanding of why we think and act as we must and 2) the power (or freedom) to act in accordance with our nature. Moreover, actions are not “good” or “bad” in the absolute or abstract. They are good to the extent that they are useful to us and evil if they are not useful. In this light, Yakov’s choice was both “good” and predetermined, as was his imprisonment. (In fact, toward the end of his ordeal he experiences an imagined conversation with the Tsar in which he explains to Yakov that were it not him being persecuted, it would’ve been another Jew).
This Spinozistic worldview streams through the entire novel. After finding Spinoza’s writings among Yakov’s confiscated belongings, the Investigating Magistrate, B.A. Bibikov, takes a special interest in the accused. “What is its appeal to you?” Bibikov asks. “First let me ask you what brought you to Spinoza?” What follows is a broad ranging philosophical discourse about Spinoza’s view of freedom, God, Necessity (aka determinism), and the State.
Bibikov turns out to be Yakov’s one ally. While every other official insists on his guilt by virtue of his being a Jew, the magistrate believes in his innocence. One even senses that in as much as Yakov is reliant upon the magistrate to win his freedom, the magistrate is reliant upon the prisoner to affirm his humanity: “… If your life is without value, so is mine. If the law does not protect you, it will not, in the end, protect me. Therefore I dare not fail you, and that is what causes me anxiety—that I must not fail you.”
Not two days after the magistrate promises to do everything in his power to win his freedom, Yakov finds the magistrate outside of his cell swinging from a leather belt.
The Fixer is unrelenting in its portrayal of an absurdly chaotic and indifferent universe. Each flash of hope that Yakov dares to entertain is stomped out by cruelty and deception. Every minor act of human decency done on Yakov’s behalf is met with crushing punishment by autocratic state officials. Seasons change. Years pass. The prison officials isolate him, poison him, beat him, shackle him, lie to him, and humiliate him in every possible way. In fact, the vast majority of the novel is set inside Yakov’s tiny, bereft jail cell wherein the innocent prisoner struggles to understand his plight. Why him? What has he done to deserve this? He is nothing more than a half-ignorant fool, a disavowed Jew, a non-political man. The whole ordeal can feel tedious at times, claustrophobic at others. Admittedly, I wanted to put the book down. But that’s the point. No one wants an acquaintance with this degree of anguish. One wants to believe that each hopeful moment will at last bring an end to the injustice. One longs for order to be restored. When Yakov is offered his “freedom” in exchange for a confession, one wishes he would take the deal. But by then one knows there is no easy escape, order cannot be achieved overnight, and freedom cannot be granted by the stroke of a pen. Yakov’s only solution is patience, endurance and acceptance. He must forgive the universe for not dealing him a better hand. He must forgive himself for his shortcomings as a man. He must forgive his wife for leaving him. Similarly, he must accept that he is not a free acting man in the world but a human being – a Jew in particular — connected an entire history and that any freedom he finds is through the understanding of his history and the courage to act in its accordance. He cannot opt out of history. Religious or not, believer or not, he is a Jew and therefore unfree and therefore, by necessity, political. Even his longed for trial and long-shot acquittal are not solutions. Which explains why Malamud ends the novel on the way to the courthouse. Whatever happens at trial is insignificant.
I can see why Bernard Malamud, as my friend Chessa put it, has fallen out of favor. He broadcasts a worldview that most of us would rather not wrestle with. We like to believe that we are free to do what we like and become who we want to become. We want to believe justice is always served and that decency is always rewarded. We like to believe reason triumphs over ignorance. And most of all we like to believe God has made all of this so.