As the “Knifing Intifada” preludes yet another round of Palestinian violence that will once again be blamed on the victims, it might seem an odd time for a fiction review (the first on this site, I believe – unless you count coverage of the Hampshire divestment hoax).
But Howard Jacobson’s 2014 Novel J (or J – if you can imagine two strike-through on that letter vs. just the one MS Word allows) provides far more insight into the minds of those doing the stabbing (and those cheering them on or apologizing for them) than any policy-maker-, news- or think-tank-report has yet been able to generate.
The odd configuration of the title letter is a reference to the way the protagonist’s father (long dead by the time the main narrative begins) used to hold two fingers across his lips whenever pronouncing a word that began with the letter J. That peculiar tick is one of the many loud hints that Kavern “Coco” Cohen (that aforementioned protagonist) has things in his past worth covering up.
In fact, it’s pretty clear from the first chapter of J that everyone in Port Rueben, the small British island where Cohen lives, like all of Britain (if not the world) has a terrible secret to hide. For in the dystopian future in which the book is set, between one and two generations have passed since a pogrom managed to complete Hitler’s work on British soil by murdering every last Jew in the country. As for the rest of the world, it seems as though the dream of an Israel-free Middle East has been realized in this future, even if the fate of its inhabitants (and the rest of the world’s Jews) remains ominously undescribed.
Understanding that such a thing actually happened is also murky, at least to most of the novel’s characters, due to the oh-so-British way that nation dealt with the legacy of their horrific crime.
The first step in this process was “Project Ishmael” which involved all Brits taking the surname of one of the Jews who had been butchered, which explains why everyone in Port Rueben (and beyond) has an Anglican first and Jewish last name (like Kavern Cohen and his love interest Ailinn Solomons). But lest you think of this as a form of atonement, that renaming of the criminals was accompanied by an act of euphem-asia for the crime, which is only referred to as “What happened… if it happened.”
To make things even more complex, the Big Brotherish government currently ruling England continues to cultivate mass guilt for a crime they were also encouraging all citizens to forget (along with much of the past as is practical). So even as “I’m sorry” replaced “Hello” and “Goodbye” in the lexicon of human interaction, the thing they were sorry about was left unspoken.
On the plus side, the Internet (which contributed to the rabble-rousing that led to what happened – if it happened) has gone away, along with cell phones, making post and land-line phone the only ways people communicate at a distance. But, strangely enough, all this de-technologizing, rebranding and apologizing has not generated tranquility.
For Britains seem to be back at one another’s throats. And with no Jews to blame (and hunt down), the government is going to extraordinary lengths to recreate the balance of hatred the perverted logic of this dark future requires.
Ruth Wisse wrote a terrific review of J which you can read to get a better sense of the full scope of Jacobson’s extraordinary work. But for purposes of this discussion, I want to zero in on the fate of the murderers, rather than the murdered. For this is where the novelist captures key insights that elude those of us caught up in debates participated in by still-living Jews.
Other sci-fi/counter-factual novels like Fatherland and Man in the High Castle gave us worlds where both Hitler’s conquest and Final Solution were ultimately successful. But neither book delved into the psychological effect on a people who succeed in committing history’s most monstrous crime.
J, on the other hand, provides an interesting answer to the question of what happens to the Jew hater (and those who get caught up in Jew hatred) when there are no Jews left to loath and prey on: they decompose as they go mad.
More specifically, they obsess over whom to blame for everything they have done to screw up their own lives once society’s historical scapegoats have been done away with, their memory erased, and mention of their elimination forbidden.
For example, one major character, an art professor/government agent who spends most of the novel speaking in high-spirited and cynical academ-ese, breaks into an uncharacteristic obscenity-laden tirade once his wife leaves him. Despite the fact that her departure was triggered by his abuse and infidelity (not to mention the fact that the couple clearly loathed one another), once he got a whiff that a J might still be alive, any need to say “I’m sorry” was replaced by hate-filled fantasies that his wife had betrayed him by sleeping with said J.
As the nation becomes awash in bar brawls and wife beatings, it is telling that the only person comfortable in his own skin is someone who is not apologetic about “What happened” (since he’s proud that it did happen), a man who at last found his calling as a serial killer.
In a particularly memorable scene, Keyvern and his love Ailinn travel to “The Necropolis” (London) whose glassy-eyed denizens include the remnant of Arab families who once enjoyed the benefits of royal status at home and limitless charge accounts abroad. Unfortunately for them, bloody revolutions throughout the Middle East have left them stranded in a decaying land destined to boil into the same self-destructive rage that shattered their previous (and now equally Jew-free) homelands.
Which gets us back to the insight only a novelist can provide into the minds of the otherwise inscrutable, like the self-righteous Israel/Jew haters who have redefined war as peace-making, bigotry as solidarity with the oppressed, censorship as free speech, and cowardice as courage.
In one memorable flashback, a character in J describes a braying mob of boycotters whose picketing of a Jewish-owned art gallery ends with the building being torched (with the gallery owner’s young daughter burned alive inside). Apparently the young girl is just another egg that needed to be broken (or, in this case, fried) in order to bring about a better world without those damned Yids and their “shitty little country” screwing things up for everyone else.
If real life provides Israel’s enemies the “victory” they so desperately desire, I suspect the results would involve more blood and fire than the slow rot depicted in Jacobson’s work. Which strangely means that the deeply depressing England of his novel’s future is probably the best-case scenario we can hope for if “From the River to the Sea” ever moves from slogan to reality.