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Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Yiddish Policeman's Union

Just finished listening to the audiobook of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon. This hybrid novel fits squarely in the hardboiled-detective genre — except that it also fits into the alternative-history genre. The premise is that the state of Israel failed almost immediately in 1948 under a defeat by the Arabs, so European Jews fled to the newly established Jewish homeland in Sitka, Alaska. After half a century, this fictional homeland (where Yiddish is spoken, not Hebrew) has seen three generations of Jewish inhabitants, one of whom (Meyer Landsman) is the Yiddish policeman of the title. Although Chabon’s premise may sound implausible, in fact a Jewish homeland in Sitka was actually proposed by Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, so it could have happened.

Anyway, I’ll stay away from giving any details, lest I inadvertently include any spoilers. Let’s just say that the beginning is a little slow, especially as the reader/listener has the task of figuring out what’s going on in this world. That task, of course, is common in science fiction, but science fiction rarely has the attention to character that The Yiddish Policeman’s Union has. So you have to learn about the fictional world, get to know the characters, and understand the plot, which is initially confusing and contains a surprising amount about chess, not to mention a bit about Esperanto and other apparent irrelevancies. But it’s well worth persevering, since the initial difficulties start to fade away to reveal a fascinating integration of all three — the alternative history, the characters, and the story line. Do read it, or listen to Peter Riegert’s captivating performance as an audiobook narrator. (The audiobook concludes with a fascinating interview with Chabon, in which he actually gives a compelling answer to that horrible question all authors dread: Where do you get your ideas?)

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