The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

I don’t remember ever doing a book review on this blog, and I figure it’s as good a time as any to start. To be honest, I was spurred on to do so by a less than favourable review of the The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon that appeared in the Guardian. Well, it was pretty favourable, but I was annoyed by the reviewer’s insistence on an ‘almost fatal flaw’
To summarize briefly, TYPU deals with the creation of Sitka, a Jewish district in Alaska after the collapse of the new state of Israel in 1948. A temperory homeland, and one that is due to revert back to Alaskan control. In this setup, a murder is investigated by Police Detective Landsman, who takes to the case mainly out of a sense of outrage- since the murder was committed in his apartment block. The plot then proceeds to wind its way around Landsman’s ex-wife (who is now his commanding officer), Jewish tradition, political maneuvering, Jewish-Indian relations, chess obsessions etc etc.
The genre of the book lies, to my mind, fairly square within Alternate History, a subgenre of speculative fiction, which may explain why the Guardian reviewer had a hard time. It’s a detective story embedded in an alternate history. A close relative of this book is Len Deighton’s SS-GB, which deals with a murder enquiry within Nazi occupied Britain. It is obvious that TYPU is speculative fiction, especially because it follows most of the implicit rules of the genre. For example, there is little or no overt references to the historical differences. We begin to realize the true nature of the alternate history only through off hand comments, say like the destruction of Berlin by an atomic bomb, or the failure of the state of Israel. There is yiddish slang peppered all through the book, and most of the words you have to understand through context. And furthermore, there is (to my knowledge) new slang, a whole new vocabulary of this fantastic place. Once again this is consistent with Speculative fiction, where the ‘exposition’- a bulk of text explaining the setup- is now considered bad form. You begin to figure out the meaning of the words and the true nature of Sitka only by osmosis, and not by explicit instruction.
The book is, not surprisingly, very Jewish. Some familiarity with the tropes of Judaism is probably useful, but not essential . One reviewer claimed that it would be all but inaccessible to casual readers, but once again, people who read speculative fiction are used to being presented with a strange setup and having to make sense of it slowly. It’s almost a pre-requisite. Given this approach, I had very little problem ‘getting’ the book. Of course, I’m a bit pre-disposed to the book, since I did spend two years in Israel, and speculative fiction dominates my reading. Nevertheless, I think that despite the lack of clear hand holding, the book still delivers the goods. In fact, the book won the Nebula award for Best Novel, further cementing its ties with the speculative fiction genre.

My rating: Four stars (of David) from me.


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