The 2010 Booker Prize winning novel, by Howard Jacobson, is a novel about identity – specifically, Jewish identity. Along the way, it skewers some stereotypes and commonplaces about Jewish people and their relationship with Israel.
*mild spoiler alert*
Two of the characters, who are close friends of the main character, have wildly differing views on Israel. Both are characterised as pronouncing the name of “Israel” in completely different ways – one, as “Israyel”, the other as “Isrrrael”. This naming problem is an indication of the concerns of the novel as a whole.
What is a Jew? What am I? These are the two questions the central character struggles with as he is forced to consider his identity after a late-night mugging in which he thinks his assailant says, “You Jew” as she strikes him. He turns to his friends, Libor and Finkler, both Jews, and tries to find his “path” to a resolved identity. In this way, it’s a coming-of-age novel, a midlife crisis novel, a fork in the road novel.
But it’s Finkler, the progressive, anti-Israel Jew, who bothers him and with whose wife he has slept – and he comes to substitute “Finkler” for “Jewish”. He refers to Jews as Finklers, so the question of the title is the question of what it means to be a Jew. It’s a metonymy.
It’s also therefore a reference to the Holocaust – ie, the final solution to “the Jewish question”. This works its way through the novel, from Finkler denouncing Israel for using the Holocaust to excuse atrocities in Palestine, to anti-Zionists comparing Israelis to Nazis, to the periodic persecutions Jews have always suffered, which are occasionally discussed by the characters. The story itself is bookended by anti-Semitic attacks, and these force the central character eventually to reappraise himself fully – to stop hiding himself behind assumed identities, in other words.
I think in some of the commentary around the novel, and around Jacobson’s continuing discussions with his opponents (notably as followed at engageonline.wordpress.com), the fact that it is a novel about a lonely man’s desperate search for identity in a world that seems to be flowing past him, and whose attempts to grasp love are doomed to failure (because they involve the self-submission to pain and suffering that the novel is about in a wider sense) – has been a little lost.
It’s also a really funny novel – humorous and humanistic.
Whether it deserved to win the Booker I have no idea. But it’s a great novel because it places people, rather than language alone, back at the heart of literature. In doing so it refutes the claims of Martin Amis and others that the play of language is all. It’s obviously not the only story to do that, but it strikes a blow for serious, literary writing to include that poor, deluded soul the human being once more.