Culture & Conversation

Studying at the Jewish School of Complication

I doubt whether the British-Jewish soul has ever been plumbed to such depths as in Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, his latest novel that recently won the Man Booker Prize. Jacobson’s coup is to guide us through this process following Julian Treslove, the book’s hero, who is definitely not a Jew. But who definitely wants to be one. In the troubled days of America in the 1960s, I knew any number of white girls who wanted to be black. Failing that possibility, they went to bed with blacks. Well, Treslove does that too. And discovers to no one’s surprise that the whole identity business can’t be solved on the pillow. If only it were that easy.

Quite early on in the book, Treslove, strolling home after a meal, is robbed – “mugged,” we used to call it. The problem is that a woman was the mugger, and that she growled at him, “Yu Ju,” or something similar, as she was relieving him of his mobile phone and watch. Treslove reports on this strange happening to his two best friends, with whom he shared that meal, Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik. Both are Jewish, yet both are incredulous when it comes to Treslove’s suspicions.

Finkler and Treslove were schoolmates who have grown apart, and Sevcik was their teacher, but now, with Finkler and Sevcik in mourning for their wives, and Treslove unlucky in love, the three men have endless days and hours in which to speculate about the meaning of the universe. The Jewish universe that, it turns out, is not much different than any one else’s universe – though Treslove, in search of someone to be, insists it has to be. Each man plays his role: Sevcik is lost in sadness over his wife’s death, Finkler is the wise-guy philosopher, and Treslove is looking for love in all the wrong places.

We’re in a situation comedy here, but since it’s a Jewish sit com, it possesses all the gravitas you would expect. The rise of anti-Semitism, this time from the Left, is discussed, and the book provides plenty of concrete examples. Sam Finkler, always on the cutting edge, creates a social group called the ASHamed Jews who feel publically bad about Israel’s actions in Gaza. This in itself sets off no end of philosophical comedy. Does Jewish shame have a higher value than any other kind? Can only Jews be Jewishly ashamed, and is that worth more than anyone else’s shame? Do you even have to be a Jew to be an ASHamed Jew? Along with this conundrum, the issue of circumcision is taken up, once again by Treslove. Who feels greater sensation: the circumcised or the foreskinned? This issue could only be settled by the arrival of a deus ex machina like Tiresias.

Needless to say, the comic possibilities are endless if you appreciate this sort of comedy, and apparently the Man Booker jury did. Most of this novel is talk, and very entertaining talk, but a few things do happen. Treslove falls in love with Hephzibah, a lovely Jewish lady, who manages to tolerate his desire to be Jewish. But in Jacobson’s comedy, there are no happy endings. Treslove’s longing for identity and his desire for the love of a good woman can’t exist side by side, not in a man like him. He might not be Jewish, but he certainly has studied at the Jewish school of complication. In the end, loss is a more powerful force than anything these men might accumulate.

David Homel is a Montreal writer and filmmaker whose latest novel is Midway, published by Cormorant Books.

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