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June 11, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union - Michael Chabon

The Yiddish Policemen's Union - Michael Chabon

Book 24 in my 52 books in 2008

I am a science fiction fan, this is pretty obvious from my book choices. This recent novel won the Nebula Award, and has been nominated for the Hugo award - the top two awards in science fiction. In an attempt to explore new authors, I thought that would be a pretty good recommendation. I was wrong.

Chabon has written a detective story, one which leads from a simple murder, to an international conspiracy, not unlike Dan Brown's Da Vinci code. It's written in the Sam Spade gumshoe tradition, with a detective who drinks too much, smokes too much, has issues with women - you know the scene. He is Jewish, and I should have guessed from the title, but this isn't just a part of his character, it permeates the whole book. Every character is Jewish, the whole plot revolves around Jews, and their religion. Chabon uses a lot of Jewish words without explanation, and also makes up a few new Jewish sounding words, so that I spend a lot of time in the dark about what the hell was going on.

Oh, I did mention is has been classed as science fiction - didn't I?

This is not science fiction. Did Robert Harris's 'Fatherland' get onto the science fiction shelves - No? Like that novel, this is an alternate history book. In Fatherland, also a detective story, Germany wins World War II, and a detective in Germany some years later has to solve a crime. Here, the historical difference is that in 1940 many of the Jews in Europe are relocated to a remote island called Sitka in Alaska, and the Holocaust, though not averted, is reduced. World history is altered in other ways, some quite interesting, but never really explored, only mentioned in passing. In a way, this is a blessing, as the politics of the Israel/Arab/Palestinian situation is complicated enough, so if you don't understand that deeply, then the subtle changes that make it different will not help.

This 'What If' exercise is a device to explore the Jewish condition, to see how Jews would live if they'd been allowed to, and it's just plain boring unless you have some interest in that area. I feel cheated by this book, it was a complete waste of my time.

It is however a clever book, and there is a good detective story trying to get out. Chabon is no fool, he writes well and has interesting characters and relationships. Sometimes his detective hero Landsman gets into some unbelievable scrapes, and even more unbelievably gets out of them again, but that's forgivable in a detective story. I could have liked this a straight detective novel.

But I was sold something else completely, there is no science in this at all. The all pervasive religiousness of the story annoyed me immensely. I know I'm coming across here as anti-Jewish, but I'd feel exactly the same way about any other religion (I read a book by Russell Hoban last year called 'Pilgermann' which had way too much Christianity in it for example). A lot of praise has been given to the book by the SF community as it's a mainstream author who is straying into genre territory. I disagree with this; we have enough good SF authors and books out there; we don't need Chabon, and McCarthy ("The Road") and their like to raise the profile with their brand of SF-Lite.

Posted by se71 at June 11, 2008 11:55 AM


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