A fable of antisemitism: Howard Jacobson’s J

August 25, 2014 at 12:45 pm (anti-semitism, literature)

The cover of Howard Jacobson's latest novel

Guest post from Pink Prosecco

Like most fictions of the near future, J invites the reader to piece together the missing bits of the puzzle, trace the path which has turned our world into the novel’s world. We learn early on that this isn’t going to be an easy task. “It was a good job that history books were hard to come by, that diaries were hidden or destroyed and that libraries put gentle obstacles in the way of research.” (Kindle edition: 2%). But we soon receive hints of some cataclysmic event (referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED) as well as clues about the society which has developed in its aftermath.

Although the novel’s biggest question is WHAT HAPPENED? I found myself puzzling over another question:- what kind of science fiction novel is this exactly? Are we meant to read it as a believable dystopia, a society which could be extrapolated from current trends? Satirical and whimsical notes (such as the universal adoption of Jewish surnames by Britons) might suggest not. But what about the central premise, the implication that in ten years or so there might be a pogrom of British Jews?

By chance, just after writing the previous sentence, I flicked over to Twitter and noticed something which captured very well my uncertain response to this question. “Do Jews have future in #EU? If #Holocaust is bench mark: they do. If fear of wearing in public kipa or Star of David: they have not!”  If Jacobson was aiming for realism, then a future Britain in which pretty much all observant Jews (and some secular ones too) have quietly moved somewhere else might have been nearer the mark. By contrast, even though he’s a wingnut Eurabian fantasist, Dan Simmons’ sf novel Flashback, which presents a future world in which Israel has been wiped out by a nuclear strike from Iran, is actually a little (I hope just a little) more plausible than Jacobson’s dystopia.

But of course a dystopia doesn’t have to be realistic in order to work and have something important to say. The Handmaid’s Tale is as implausible as J, and so is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Perhaps J, like Atwood’s novel, should be read as a fable, a comment on our society’s apparent refusal to learn the lessons of the Holocaust, let alone the earlier history of antisemitism. Many elements in the novel’s hint suggestively at the relationship between antisemitism, on the one hand, and its apparent opposite – philosemitism, or simply a horrified avoidance of antisemitism. Towards the beginning of the novel a character speaks of looking for what is ‘left over’ (10%) and refers to ‘business dangerously unfinished’  but it is not at this point fully clear whether Jews are his target or those who might kill them. The pattern of confusion over this issue, the elision between guilt, horror and relief in society’s responses to WHAT HAPPENED seems to reflect the way the Holocaust is weaponised by some bigots against Jews today. The horror of the past is acknowledged, but only in order to create a new vector for antisemitism. This observation seems aimed at Jews, but could just as easily be aimed at the clever mutations and masks traceable in antisemitic discourse. ‘Too many of society’s ills were the result of the wrong sort of people with the wrong sort of beliefs finding ways of recycling themselves, no matter how much effort went into their disposal.’ (34%)

Indeed the novel seems to offer a whole series of oblique reflections on antisemitism. When Kevern is convinced someone has searched his house, Ailinn’s friend Ez is quick to offer soothing reassurances that imply he is being hypersensitive. The context (ostensibly) has nothing to do with antisemitism, but the anxiety/scepticism dynamic can be mapped onto the contrasting ways in which people respond to manifestations of antisemitism at a time when people seem increasingly emboldened to express their warped views. See for example this recent statement from a South African trade unionist, or the calmly chilling pronouncements from these Gaza protestors.  But, for some, almost any expression of anxiety is read as paranoid overreaction or a dishonest move, aimed at protecting Israel from criticism. I approached this novel with some reluctance because I found The Finkler Question overrated and politically crude. But science fiction proves a good medium for Jacobson’s message, and J, although still perhaps too obviously polemical in places, is a subtler and more unsettling exploration of antisemitism.

3 Comments

  1. Rosie said,

    II don’t like Jacobson’s novels though I do like his non-fiction. He lets his ideas over-power novelistic things like character, story and plausibility. So an sf novel which by its nature deals with ideas may suit him better.

    His whimsicality can be annoying as well. So Maxie in Kalooki Nights got together with women with a diaeresis in their names – Zoe and Chloe. In The Finkler Question Julian Treslove (aargh) fell for women whose names begin with “J” so there’s a June, a Josephine, a Janice culminating with a Juno.

    I’ll try this J though – HJ does write smoothly and he’s no strain on the brain (damned with faint praise!) Flashback sounds interesting as well.

    I don’t keep up with that kind of dystopian fiction – I thought they were mostly about environmental collapse these days.

    It occurs to me that there must be a jihadist branch of the genre, where heroic warriors usher in the age of the glorious Caliphate.

    • Andrew Coates said,

      The Finkler Question is hard going precisely for the reasons Rosie cites, too much said, too much indeed.

  2. Lamia said,

    The ‘progressive’ left must be so proud that along with other ‘anti-zionist’ allies they are so close to finishing what Hitler started.

    It is the eleventh hour for decent leftists to start speaking loudly and clearly against a rise in antisemitism that in Britain has come overwhelmingly from their neck of the woods, and to distance themselves unequivocally from anti-semites on the left.

    That means finally facing up to the increase of the problem and not pretending that it is all or even mainly the work of far right scumbags. It has mostly come from the left. Deal with it. Please.

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