Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Howard Jacobson

It was with considerable excitement that I approached Howard Jacobson's Finkler Question. And I'm pleased to report, the book did not let me down. In fact, it's up there now as one of my favorites. 

Part of what I liked so much about Jacobson's novel was its honesty: Finkler gets at a range of topics, all of them awkward, all of them charged. 

Contrary to what you'll read on its back cover (by critics who seem to have missed the point), Finker is about far more than generic themes of friendship and belonging, identity and loss. To argue that the book is about these things is to deliberately avoid its aim, or to feel some sort of discomfort discussing it. 

Finkler is about being Jewish. It's about using that word 'Jew' in contemporary Europe. It's a book about anti-Semitism and its roots, and about the Holocaust. It's a book, too, about Jewish guilt, and about Jewish humor. It's a book about living on the fringes of European society, but also very much at its core. And finally, it's a book about the Middle East, and about the complexity of Israeli politics.

For me, Finkler was reminiscent of one of my favorite Roth novels, The Counterlife (which also takes place in London). Like Roth, Jacobson deals head on with British conceptions of Jewry, and with the role of Jews in contemporary European society. 

I think Jacobson, though, is more accessible than Roth, and Finkler serves as a courageous, unwavering vision of Judaism from all angles: from inside and out, from places of hatred and honor, from across Europe to the Middle East and beyond. 

I can't recommend Finkler enough: here's a funny, poignant, compelling depiction of European Jewry, and all of the charged political and religious baggage that comes along with it. 

The last word is reserved for Jacobson:

"The Holocaust has become a commodity you trade. There's a Spanish mayor who's cancelled his town's Holocaust Memorial Day because of Gaza, as though they're somehow connected..."

"...I know. The implication being that the dead of Buchenwald only get to be memorialised if the living of Tel Aviv behave themselves."

At all turns, Finkler poses these sorts of, well, you guessed it - these sorts of questions.

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