Bernard Malamud Revisited: Portrait of the Post-Holocaust Jewish Hero in the Fixer



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JEWISH HEROISM IN THE FIXER
In reading Malamud’s fiction, many critics define his protagonists as schlemiels. Some, however, including Jeffrey
Helterman and Howard Faulkner, consider them as either schlemiel or schlimazel. Nevertheless, the fact that I wish to establish is that although there are certain elements of the schlemiel in Malamud’s protagonists, there are crucial differences as well. Most importantly, especially in the case studied in the present study, they do not fail at the end.
Robert Charles Edgar in his PhD. dissertation The
Schlemiel and Anomie: The Fool in Society (2001) examines the character of the schlemiel in comparative Jewish and Gentile American literature and cinema, which I have benefited from to mention some of the attributes of the schlemiel figure here. The word schlemiel itself is a derivative of Yiddish, and thus has a clear connection to Jewish culture and tradition. Schlemiel or the wise fool is considered as the most archetypically Jewish character of all (2), and is a potential form of hero not considered in conventional Narratology” (70). The schlemiel is essentially a comic character (57), almost never arrogant (64), and a character whose life and ultimate contentment is rooted in an unshakeable faith and belief (142). Schlemiels are not expected to succeed from the outset and they do not require our pity, nor do they deserve it, because, ultimately, despite the ending, they have had a hand in the process of their own deception (It is true to say that Malamud’s fiction possesses moments of comic relief, and that humor is an important feature of his writing. He was interested in Charlie Chaplin and drew inspiration from his work. As a writer I learned from


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IJALEL 8(6):34-42
Charlie Chaplin. the reserved comic presence—that beautiful distancing the funny with sad he told an interviewer. Ina like manner, Malamud liked his comedy spiced in the wine of sadness (Art of Fiction. It is also true to say that
Bok’s witty answers as well as his getting stuck in some unlucky situations contribute to the creation of comic moments. However, Yakov Bok can never be considered as essentially a comic character. Neither the novel’s atmosphere which is filled with pain and affliction allows such fleeting moments to be enduring in the reader’s mind. And this is exactly the very effect Malamud expected to achieve through his humor a spice in the fixer’s wine of sadness.
Unshakable faith is another distinctive quality of schle- miel-like characters. He has ceased reading Torah, and reads Spinoza instead. Before leaving his shtetl fora new life in Kiev, Bok attempts to strip away his Jewishness He shaves his beard and drops his bag of prayer things into the Dnieper, while on a ferry. Later in prison, he introduces himself as a Jew by birth and nationality and adds that “I’m not a religious man. I’m a freethinker (TF 86).
Bok’s Jewishness is very much like that of the author himself. Although he is not religious, there is something rab- bi-like about him. Obedience to Jewish laws surfaces on various occasions in the form of a sense of belonging to Jewish tradition and people. One of the most obvious instances of this occurs when Bok is offered by Lebedev’s daughter,
Zinaida, who is a gentile, to have sex with her. On the verge of submitting to this temptation in her bedroom, Bok discovers that she is having her period. But you are unclean
(TF 52), he tells her and leaves there. Undoubtedly, he could never bridle his sexual desire if it were not for abiding by the Jewish laws. Another instance is when he is offered to convert to Christianity to be freed, which the fixer rejects.
If that is the case, one might ask, why Bok strives toes- cape his past and Jewishness The short answer is suffer-
ing. It is in fact the misery, suffering, and bad luck that he is escaping from. When he introduces himself with a false gentile name to Lebedev the factory owner and his daughter, he feels sorry he hadn’t at once identified himself as a Jew by birth When he is asked by Bibikov if you are ashamed of your people, why don’t you leave the faith officially he answers that “I’m not ashamed, your honor (TF 41, 87). The fixer is definitely not ashamed of his people, but he has no idea why he should suffer or endure suffering. Whereas
Shmuel, his God-fearing father-in-law and defender of the faith in the novel, bears suffering in the hope of finding abetter life in the hereafter, Bok insists that today I want my piece of bread, not in Paradise (TF 17). He also associates suffering with the Jews, which results in his escape from both Judaism and Jewishness. As the examples show he is ashamed of neither his people nor his Jewish identity, but suffering for nothing has pushed him toward the rejection of both.
Nevertheless, suffering and loneliness are no doubt the major sources for change in Bok’s views and personality. Loneliness which is an integral part of Malamud’s protagonists prepares the way for the fixer’s deep thinking. He is deprived of all external support First, his family then, a fellow Jew named Gronfein, and finally, Bibikov the Investigating Magistrate who assures Bok of not being without a friend in the world Bibikov also assures him that I know you are falsely accused. I am determined to continue this investigation to the best of my ability and powers in order to discover, and if necessary, publish the whole truth (TF 169). Gronfein, who is ironically a counterfeiter and Bok meets in prison, turns out to be a fake friend by betraying and telling lie against Bok to save himself. Bibikov is hung mysteriously, and does not live to seethe outcome of his endeavors. After the death of Bibikov, who is the fixer’s honest friend and his last human support, Bok has to bear his suffering with no hope and no help. Yet, he has time to refer to his self and reflect upon his past and future.
Suffering brings the fixer moral growth. This morality brings about a change in his character. The first sign of the change appears in an epiphany-like moment when he understands that suffering should not be for nothing. If I must suffer let it be for something. Let it be for Shmuel” (TF 273). This makes him ready to accept his own share in the past failures and mistakes. Visiting his faithless wife in prison,
Bok, who once arrogantly blamed and cursed Raisl for their fruitless life, now tells her:
I’ve thought about our life from beginning to end and I can’t blame you for more than I blame myself. If you give little you get less, though of somethings I got more than I deserved. Also, it takes me along time to learn. Some people have to make the same mistake seven times before they know they’ve made it. That’s my type and I’m sorry. I’m also sorry I stopped sleeping with you. I was out to stab myself, so I stabbed you. Who else was so close tome Still I’ve suffered in this prison and
I’m not the same man I once was. If I had my life to live over, you’d have less to cry about. (TF He also does her a great favor by claiming her illegitimate child as his own. As Abramson says, Becoming a father means that he will be responsible for the plight of other people and will have to extend his concern beyond himself In the last step, Bok comes to the understanding that now he should stand for not only the innocence of himself, but his people. You suffer for us all (TF 305), his lawyer reminds him. Throughout the novel, Bok does everything not to become involved in the fate of his people he changes his appearance, changes his name, hides his Jewish identity, introduces himself a freethinker, and declares, at least three times, indifferent situations that I am not apolitical person But now he is strong enough to resist suffering both for his people’s rights as well as his own. Something in myself has changed. I’m not the same man I was. I fearless and hate more (TF 45, 319). This more hatred is for anti-Jewishness and injustice toward the Jews throughout their history.
This is the role of suffering in Malamud’s fiction to make the protagonist’s eyes wide open toward his place in history and the responsibility he has toward his people. Trying to compose a little essay before his imprisonment, the fixer writes, I am in history. yet not in it. Ina way of speaking
I’m far out, it passes me by. Is this good, or is something




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