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II. Assimilation or Zionism: Nationalism as Miracle

or Curse

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

(2007: 410)

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