AT 68, Man Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson continues to write about his concerns with the challenges of being Jewish and exploring a particular sense of identity that is clearly not in conflux.
For many Jews the idea that Israel is a country hugely criticised by the world community for its human rights atrocities remains an uncomfortable reality and they acknowledge the need to form some kind of peaceful consensus with the Palestinians. In recent years the Jewish community in Britain has openly critiqued Israeli hard-handedness towards Palestinians, forming groups such as ‘Not in My Jewish Name’ that state that they are ashamed and outraged by Israeli actions in Gaza.
As a writer Jacobson has focused on the effects of pogroms and death camps on British Jews (Kalooki Nights, 2007), used literary mastery to create humour within a discomforting situation, even given anti-Semitism a rather comic twist and made it a theme of his latest novel, The Finkler Question.
In defining, or rather attempting to understand Jewishness and what it is to be a British Jew, Jacobson tends to oversimplify cultural identity especially at a time when the complexities of multiple identities abound.
But what he sets out to do is tedious in a narrative where the protagonist is not a Jew preoccupied with his religious beliefs, but a 49-year old Gentile who can’t seem to stop obsessing about Jewishness.
Julian Treslove, one of the three central characters in the book, is a former BBC producer of little note. He is prone to bouts of melancholic nostalgia at truncated relationships, leaving him with a fear of being discarded by yet another woman.
What is obsessive and awkward, perhaps literary imagination through a series of tragicomic meditations, is how Treslove envies and loves what he sees as the Jewish cult of rivalry. His friends, Sam Finkler, a popular philosopher, writer and television personality and Libor Sevcik, a Czech, and their former teacher who was a showbiz writer, are both Jewish; he is intrigued by them as individuals and as culturally unique.
Their sorrow seems rather playful and consuming in its intensity because both are mourning, albeit in different ways, the loss of their wives. Ninety-year-old Libor is besotted with his deceased 80-year-old wife, a pianist whose memory is so alive in his mind that he imagines her living with him in their Regent’s Park apartment. Finkler is grieving the loss of his young wife to cancer and occupies himself with playing poker on the internet and giving anti-Israel lectures to fellow celebrities.
Treslove may dream of what it is like to be a Jew but he has no inclination to ‘convert’ to Judaism. So the novel is not about religious doctrine but about a man looking for an emotional rudder where life’s meaning takes on a new definition.
It begins with Treslove returning from dinner with Finkler and Libor, musing about his romantic history when he is accosted by a mugger: ‘He should have seen it coming. His life had been one mishap after another. So he should have been prepared for this one...’
He convinces himself that the mugger’s motive was racial and he was wrongly identified as Jewish. There is a strain of Chekhovian absurdity in the mugging scene, preceded by a Treslove with no clear sense of life’s direction, always imagining the mishaps that could befall him: a crane smashing his brains, a terrorist opening fire, or a road sign bruising his shin.
It is at that point, when thinking of his only childhood Jewish friend Sam Finkler, that he adopts the latter’s name as a substitute to represent all that is Jewish: ‘It took away the stigma, he thought. The minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say, or the Finklerish Conspiracy, you sucked out the toxins. But he was never quite able to get around to explaining this to Finkler himself.’
Treslove never seems settled in his life; he is always searching for something in his head and heart, whether it’s Jewishness or a woman’s love that won’t disintegrate, or the bonds of friendship.
He is disappointed when a new girlfriend’s apartment lends an excellent view of the cricket at Lord’s rather than the Wailing Wall. That’s when the question irritates the reader even more: why on earth would he even want to be Jewish? It’s hard to figure that one out but maybe it allows Jacobson to enjoy Treslove’s non-Jewishness.
The novel’s comic moments come after an awkward appearance by Finkler on a show Desert Island Discs. When he receives a letter of appreciation from a group who call themselves The Ashamed Jews, well-known figures who wish publicly to distance themselves from their creed, Jacobson mercilessly ridicules this B-list and their ranting about Israel’s policies towards Palestinians.
There are reasons to find this novel annoying and repetitive, and Jacobson has stirred this issue of self-loathing Jews in the past as has Philip Roth before him; maybe it deserves a rest the next time they write.
But as this year’s Man Booker Prize Winner, the novel has surprisingly done well: receiving the biggest ever sales boost from the prize since records began, as reported by The Bookseller and trumping previous record holder Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger in 2008.
The reality that vaguely emerges at the end of the novel are the anti-Semitic attacks that are reported from around London and elsewhere. A boy is blinded and a grave covered in swastikas: these are reminders of the need for tolerance. ‘It’s not Kristallnacht,’ Libor says, but who knows what the next trigger will be?
The Finkler Question (NOVEL) By Howard Jacobson Bloomsbury, London ISBN 978- 1408-8091-0-9 320pp. Rs1,175