The Finkler Question – reviewed by Alan Gold for J-Wire

October 14, 2010 by Alan Gold
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U.K. author Howard Jacobson has won the prestigious Booker Prize for his novel “The Finkler Question”. Alan Gold reviews it for J-Wire.

Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Finkler Question shines the spotlight on Britain’s oldest hatred, anti-Semitism. While racism is universally condemned, anti-Semitism has become increasingly acceptable when painted with the veneer of anti-Zionism. Indeed, an increasing number of governments and state actors have adopted anti-Zionism as part of their mainstream ideology.

So Jacobson’s latest novel, a biting comedic dissection of antisemitism, will find a much wider audience now that it has won such a prestigious literary prize. And let’s make no bones about it. This is a book which treats anti-Semitism as its dominant theme. Despite all the well-meant factual tomes and newspaper articles which have been written about this most persistent and malevolent curse, its books like Jacobson’s Finkler Question which stand a chance of making non-Jewish people aware of the recent growth in Jew hatred.

Anti-Semitism is more prevalent today than at any time since the days of Nazism. With Ahmadinejad visiting Lebanon and threatening to wipe Israel off the map, with the Arab media alive with hatred of Jews, with Palestinian television running children’s shows in which Jews are portrayed as pigs and monkeys, with Mel Gibson still making obscene comments concerning ‘those who run Hollywood’, and with CNN host Rick Sanchez kicked off television for anti-Semitic barbs, Jacobson’s comedic tour-de-force comes at just the right time.

Comedic? Yes, because the best way to fight such a groundless hatred is to ridicule it. As Charlie Chaplin did with The Great Dictator and Mel Brooks with The Producers, anti-Semitism needs to be exposed, held up to the light, and shown to be the vapid baseless nonsense it is.

Alan Gold

Howard Jacobson has been waiting many years to be acknowledged as a major literary presence and become a recipient of the Man Booker prize for fiction. And this year, he beat a stellar line-up of great writing, including Peter Carey’s “Parrot & Olivier in America”, and Emma Donoghue’s “Room”.

Most of Jacobson’s literary output deals with Jews and the definition of Jewish identity, and The Finkler Question is no exception. The novel deals with the subject in a series of internal dissections of how and why it is affecting the dominant characters; in the hands of a less skilled writer, his book could have been maudlin and predictable, dealing with his central character’s ambivalence in such  a way as to make him a figure of ridicule, one who could be ignored. But Jacobson’s brilliance at handling absurdity, at making unpredictable situations seem somehow real (in a Monty Python environment), lifts this wonderful novel many notches.  While not a side-splitting, but a far more intellectual comedy feast, he examines the irrationality of anti-Semitism in its modern-day context of anti-Zionism.

One of the devices which Jacobson uses to propel his narrative is Julian Treslove, a BBC producer, a man who is romantic and nervous, a flawed character, works as a celebrity double. One day, after dining with two elderly Jewish widower friends at a Pessach meal, he’s mugged in the street, and the woman who mugs him sits on top of him as she steals his possessions and says, “You Ju”. Is this ‘You Jew’, or ‘You Jewel’, or “You, Jules” or what? Julian ruminates.

Being mistaken for a Jew by an anti-Semite makes Julian, our celebrity double, the victim not of robbery, but of his religious identity, and awakens in him his envy of his friends’ uniqueness. Should he become Jewish, the ultimate victim? Should he train to be a Rabbi…a lay rabbi? Perhaps he should become circumcised so that he’d fit more comfortably into the role.

The Booker Prize winner

What Julian doesn’t want to do is to stereotype Jews, yet he indulges in all the classical and overarching caricatures by which Jews have been portrayed in the eyes of antisemites….their wealth, exclusivity, successes in trades and professions, and the tragedy of their history.

Treslove hopes that becoming a Jew will unify his inner contradictions, his frustrations and insecurities, but it’s his elderly Jewish friends who are in conflict over their identity. They fight over Jewish distinctiveness; they fight over Israel; and they are especially at each other’s throats over the question of British Jews who have come out against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. It is in these characters that Jacobson is at his most pointed and critical. The title character, Sam Finkler, is conflicted about the nature of what it is to be a Jew, and becomes involved with Jews who form a coterie of opposition to Israel, calling themselves ‘ASHamed Jews’.

Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question is a wonderfully funny, wise and incisive book, and elevates him to the very upper echelons of writers today. His obvious distress at British (and Australian?) Jews who rail against Israel’s policies is manifest throughout his book. And I hope that his invention of a comedic approach to anti-Semitism will have greater success than other methods which have been used to fight this scourge. If so, The Finkler Question will establish itself as a far more important work of literature than just a good novel.

Alan Gold is a novelist and literary critic.


One Response to “The Finkler Question – reviewed by Alan Gold for J-Wire”
  1. richard says:

    Another tawdry piece of apologetics for Israel’s sickening crimes and barbarities, by an unfunny dope.

    No wonder the country has given up reading.

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