II. Assimilation or Zionism: Nationalism as Miracle
Landsman tries to weigh the fates of
Berko, of his uncle Hertz, of Bina, of
the Jews, of the Arabs, of the whole
unblessed and homeless planet, against
the promise he made to Mrs. Shpilman,
and to himself, even though he had lost
his belief in fate and promises.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Unlike Roth’s counterfactual novel, which has, as its focalizer,
a child too young to comprehend or explain away the many
traumatic events that befall various members of his extended family,
Chabon’s counterfactual novel has a mature but fatigued detective
as its narrator. As the young and naïve narrator in Roth’s novel
struggles to comprehend the effects of American history, though a
counterfactual one, on families and individuals, he exposes his fear
of antisemitism only to eventually restore his confidence in the
uniqueness of the Jews and the exceptional greatness of America.
The adult narrator of Chabon’s novel, in contrast, is anything but
naïve. Focusing his novel on a hard-boiled detective, Chabon imbues
his novel with an atmosphere of uncertainty and suspense, while
rendering insecurity, futility, and disappointment norms, rather than
exceptions, in the counterfactual world of his novel. As the novel
opens, Landsman has just received an eviction notice from his hotel.
Landsman’s wretched condition, both homeless and stateless,
resonates with the tenuous condition of Jews in Sitka in Chabon’s
counterfactual novel. It can also be taken as an oblique reference to
the wretched condition of the homeless and stateless Palestinian
refugees forced into living on borrowed time and leased land as a
result of the 1948 war which led to the founding of Israel.
In the counterfactual world of the novel, the Yiddish-speaking