History as Knish-tory

cooking up past pasts not past: michael chabon’s the yiddish policemen’s union.

Michael Chabon’s 2007 novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a historical novel about a history that never happened. For this reason, one is tempted to call it a counterfactual-historical novel since it imagines the past of a future that did not occur. But even this isn’t quite right. Chabon’s tale is too playful, too interested in actual history, to be dismissed as mere counterfactual fantasy. The novel is closer to Benjamin’s notion of history, which is fitting since the novel is haunted by the history of the holocaust. Chabon presents the past as a distant constellation in the sky, a space onto which we project our dreams—and our nightmares.

At first, you don’t notice it in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: history. At first you are simply in a new place, but hearing an old story. We’re in Alaska, but with Isaac Bashevis Singer, or even Kafka, in a Yiddish Central European ghetto. Wait, no, we’re in a hard-boiled detective novel, something that Paul Auster might write, with a healthy dose of Pynchon (whose last publication also used the detective genre to explore a past historical moment, in his case the sixties counterculture). Wherever we are, everything is dislocated, fragmented, and jumbled together in the haze of Detective Meyer Landsman’s hangover, which starts the novel.

Gumshoe-cum-snowshoe novel? Hard-boiled egg and chicken-fat novel? Shamus story? Humphrey Bogart with his yiddeshe momme? The immediate plot grabs your attention as Chabon begins to fill in the background details of Meyer Landsman’s life. But as the novel develops, one begins to see that there’s a larger history informing the story. Chabon has situated his novel within a path not taken, the aborted effort to make the Alaska territories open for resettlement by Jews fleeing Hitler. In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, this effort actually succeeded.

But the brilliant move Chabon makes is to never explicate this larger history. Instead, he folds it into the story, like the meat in a cabbage roll. You bite into the leaves of the plot first, following the wrinkly, comical surfaces of Landsman’s misadventures. It’s good. But then—oy!—there’s a far richer, more fulfilling flavor within.

He picks up the shot glass that he is currently dating, a souvenir of the World’s Fair of 1977. …He lifts the glass and toasts thirty years gone since the Sitka World’s Fair. A pinnacle of Jewish civilization in the north, people say, and who is he to argue? — Michael Chabon

The detective story that is in the foreground of the novel echoes two deeper mysteries that the reader must solve: first, what happened in this history? Second, what light does it shed—askance—on the existing history of the Jewish diaspora in the aftermath of the holocaust?

It’s as if Walter Benjamin, fleeing the Nazis in 1940, made it out of Spain and lived. Only there’s something different going on here. Chabon has a different take on Benjamin’s notion of how we should understand history. Rather than “seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger,” as Benjamin famously suggested in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, Chabon shifts the equation. He seizes hold of a moment as it flashes up in a memory of danger. Which is to say his entire novel takes place within a moment that never occurred, but which is filled with dread, which somehow comes to count for more than the actual past.

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. …a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. — Walter Benjamin

In the corner by the door stands the famous Verbover clock, a survivor of the old home back in Ukraine. Looted when Russia fell, then shipped back to Germany, it survived the dropping of the atomic bomb on Berlin in 1946 and all the confusions of the time that followed. It runs counterclockwise, reverse-numbered with the first twelve letters of the Hebrew alphabet. — Michael Chabon

If Benjamin imagined history as Klee’s Angelus Novus, with its gaze on a pile of debris as a storm of progress pushed it relentlessly backwards into the future, then Chabon pictures history as something else from Benjamin’s imagination: it is shot through with “splinters of Messianic time,” which is to say the past always consists of all the pasts that did not become the past, but which remain, suspended, in the stars, intact, constellations of potential futures as yet undetected.

The clock of time ticks backward in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. It ticks and explodes in a million directions. Drawing humor from the absurdities of diaspora and strength from the traumas of holocaust, the novel’s reverse flow has something to tell us about the way we think about history now: keep telling stories.

Incidentally, it seems to me there is a great study yet to be completed on Alaska in the recent American cultural imagination. One thinks immediately of the strange, unfolding saga of Sarah Palin, but there’s also more, from the mega-successful Into the Wild to the now-forgotten Ken Kesey novel Sailor Song, from the uses of Alaska in Disney cartoons to the reality TV show Deadliest Catch, from the indigenous art of Native Alaskans to the use of Alaska in novels such as Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.


2 thoughts on “History as Knish-tory

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *