March 23, 2012

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Recently I discussed one excellent alternate history book. Around the same time, I read another, THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION by Michael Chabon. It's a great story, and I recommend it for all readers.

In the backstory of this novel, the state of Israel wasn't founded in the Middle East during the aftermath of World War II. Instead, the district of Sitka, Alaska was given by the U.S. to the Jewish refugees fleeing Europe. Chabon didn't invent this idea: There was a real, failed proposal during the war to grant Alaskan territory to Jewish immigrants.

The book is set sixty years later, a few months before Sitka is slated to revert to Alaskan territory, leaving the three million Jewish occupants without citizenship in any nation. Homicide detective Meyer Landsman is avoiding this problem and all his other personal problems by escaping in alcohol and work. When an unidentified murder victim is discovered in the seedy hotel where Landsman has been living since his divorce, he starts an investigation, only to be told by his new inspector and former wife that the case must be closed unsolved. Despite this warning, Landsman and his partner pursue the investigation, and the more they dig, the deeper the mystery grows.

THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION reminded me of THE CITY AND THE CITY by China MiƩville, which I raved about last year, because it's through the police investigation plot that the reader is introduced to an unfamiliar setting with a richly imagined culture and slang. (Though perhaps if I'd read more detective stories, I'd be less inclined to lump these two together.) Chabon draws on real Jewish and Alaskan Native traditions to create a detailed, plausible modern society that could believably arise from the speculated history.

The slang in the book is particularly clever. A glossary at the back defines the Yiddish words, many of which have been pressed into new usages in Chabon's Sitka, where Yiddish is the common tongue. For example, Landsman's handgun is a sholem, explained as "(Sitka slang, lit., 'peace') gun; ironic bilingual pun on American slang 'piece'."

This is an exciting story with wonderful characters in a fascinating world. It's also frequently hilarious, which serves as a nice balance against the darker material. Read it!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Annie Murphy Paul, writing in the New York Times Sunday Review, looks at neuroscience research about reading fiction: "The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated."

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