Saturday 4 October 2008

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon

I took one edition of this book out from the library a while ago, then half-way through got entranced by the bulging biceps and voluptuous maidens of Savage Sword of Conan, Volume 1. Soon my time with the book was up, and another had already placed a reservation, so I had to return it unfinished – always heartbreaking. Second time around, I had to settle for a large print edition from W.F. Howes Ltd, which rather embarrassingly for that company announces itself as The Yiddish Policeman’s Union on the cover. It’s an easy mistake to make, but I’m glad I didn’t make it.

So, having finished with Conan and his savage sword, and resisting the temptation to move onto volume two, I returned with excitement to Jewish Alaska. Large print turned out to be a boon – I felt like a reading wunderkind as I flashed through the pages, and it was ideal for reading late at night by lamplight. Having taken a month to read the first twenty-four chapters (more or less one each night), it took me an evening and a morning to read the rest.

So that’s how I got to the end. Briefly, to remind myself in future years of the plot, this is where it begins: a rumpled policeman gets beaten up a lot (often by inanimate objects) as he investigates a murder in the weeks leading up to the abolition of a Jewish settlement in Alaska.

This is an alternative history novel in the tradition of Kingley Amis’s The Alteration, Keith Roberts’ Pavane and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. I won’t go into the details of the differences from our world, because they are seeded through the book like little alarm clocks, but they don’t seem to stem from one single change. The main difference is that the nation of Israel did not survive, and a temporary settlement in Alaska was established instead.

The story works well as a detective story. There’s a lot going on, but Chabon has a knack of having his characters gather their thoughts just as you think you’re about to lose the thread. It also works well as alternative history – everything is plausible, but more to the point it shows how even in a world quite different to our own similar pressures would still exist. They would just be applied in different locations.

It was very reminiscent of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, another fine literary detective novel, what with the snow, and the crimes, and the slight fantastical twist. It added to those things a narration in the present tense, which made me groan as I read the first page, but won me over pretty quickly. It served a purpose – throwing you into the events and feeling them in the here and now, rather than relegating them to a distant irrelevant past.

Having finally finished it, I’m in a rather giddy mood today, so here’s the movie tagline I came up with last night: Even when everything’s different, some things stay the same. The Coen Brothers can have that for free…

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon, Fourth Estate, hb, 432pp

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