Bernard Malamud Revisited Portrait of the Post-Holocaust Jewish Heroin the Fixer 39 lacking in my character. What a question Of course lacking but what can I do about it. Best to stay where one is, unless he has something to give to history Now he has something to give and to fight for. He is no longer the fixer who disliked politics contrarily now, he emphasizes “there’s no such thing as an unpolitical man, especially a Jew On the way to his trial and in his thoughts he shouts Death to anti-Semites! Long live revolution (TF 60, 335), and in his reverie he even manages to shoot the Tsar’s heart, thus eliminating the source of injustice for all Jews. Webster’s New World Dictionary gives an etymology of the word schlemiel as name of a tribal chief. identified in the Talmud with a prince who met an unfortunate end schlemiel 1282). The fixer’s end as well as other elements of the schlemiel studied above do not confirm that Yakov Bok is a schlemiel figure even Malamud himself hated the way his work was vulnerable to readers patronizing his characters as schlemiels (Davis 169). But if Bok is not a schlemiel figure, what kind of character is he Gerald Sorin is among very few critics who have put a more accurate interpretation on this issue. He observes that unlike other Jewish writers, who make the schlemiel apathetic figure to be pitied or ridiculed, Malamud’s schlemiel is interchangeable with the idea of being a Jew, a mentsh, a humane figure—one who assumes amoral stance and recognizes the responsibility of peoplehood” (271). What I like to add is that Yakov Bok is a Jewish hero timely for the post-Holocaust period. In Writing American Fiction (1960) Philip Roth refers to a significant point concerning Malamudian Jews. Hear- gues that the Jews of Malamud’s tales of suffering and regeneration are not the Jews of New York City or Chicago They are, Roth notes, a kind of invention, a metaphor to stand for certain human possibilities and certain human promises He then continues that Malamud, as a writer of fiction, has not shown specific interest in the anxieties and dilemmas and corruptions of the modern American Jew, the Jew we think of as characteristic of our times rather, his people live in a timeless depression and a placeless Lower East Side their society is not affluent, their predicament not cultural (Roth. More than a decade later, in Imagining Jews (1974) he similarly observed that The Fixer is a novel of masochistic Jewish suffering, adrift from contemporary reality (qtd. in Davis Jews could have never been in more superior condition than in the years after the World War II. As Philip Yannella puts it, Jews were alone. in being perceived as so powerful, so victimized by world events, so important to American foreign policy, so crucial to maintaining access to oil, or, in the eyes of ultra-rightists and their allies, so destructive (124). However, as Roth rightly notes, Malamud’s fictionalized Jews do not in the least resemble their real counterparts, especially, in contemporary era. This is mainly due to the fact that Malamud could never cease harking back to the life of his parents. He admitted, almost without understanding why, I was thinking about my father’s immigrant life (how he earned his meager living and what he paid for it) and my mother’s (diminished by fear and suffering) as perhaps matter for my fiction. In other words, I had them in mind as I invented the characters who became their fictional counterparts (qtd. in Davis 95). The other main reason is the alleged Holocaust. As noted earlier, he was greatly under the influence of the news of the alleged death camps and the devastation of European Jewry. Somebody has to cry—even if it’s a writer, 20 years later (qtd. in Berger 119), he said later to an interviewer. Nevertheless, similar to many other Jews in his time, his mind seemed to be occupied with one important question. As a consequence of reflecting on the occurrence of the alleged Holocaust that its news had been spread by unprecedented political publicity, a host of fundamental theological and philosophical doubts and questions raised among the Jewish common people and intellectuals. Central to them was this Does the Holocaust prove God’s nonexistence If not, why God did not use His providence to intervene into this event The first important Jewish theological responses to the alleged Holocaust written in English began by American and European authors since the s that included views ranging from the claim that God is dead to those of conservative thinkers who attempt to respond to the Holocaust by recycling classical defenses of God, drawing on biblical models such as the binding of Isaac the suffering servant of the Book of Isaiah, and that offered by the Book of Job, among others (Katz Unsurprisingly, the fixer’s mindset echoes the same question. Shmuel insists that Bok should remain in the shtetl, because here at least God is with us But Bok returns, Hes with us till the Cossacks come galloping, then he’s elsewhere This suggests the author’s belief as well if we replace the Cossacks with the Nazis. Later, in the moment of departing from each other Shmuel says passionately, “don’t forget your God which Bok retorts angrily, Who forgets who. What do I get from him but a bang on the head. what’s thereto be worshipful about. We live in a world where the clock ticks fast while he’s on his timeless mountain staring in peace. He doesn’t see us and he doesn’t care Obviously, Bok expects God’s intervention in his suffering, otherwise He does not exist. Ashe later tells Shmuel, under the influence of Spinoza, Nature invented itself and also man. Whatever was there was thereto begin with. When it comes down to basic facts, either God is our invention and can’t do anything about it, or he’s a force in Nature (TF 12, 17, Malamud was not a religious man, and neither were his heroes. The response to this problem, therefore, should not be traced in Jewish theology. It should be found in what Malamud had seen and experienced when he was young. What fascinated Malamud about the immigrant Jews of New York was the warm relationship they had with and among each other. What he remembered above all was an emotional people possessed of an old gentleness that was a miraculous transfiguration of the bitter experiences of the past.’...It was those miraculous or magical ‘transfigura- tions’ that later he wanted to recreate in his own fresh language (Davis 118). He looked at it as a virtue resulted from the hard times they have been experiencing. That is why he mentioned, When I think of the history of the Jews.
40 IJALEL 8(6):34-42 I think of the triumph of insight and value that makes their lives so basically rich (qtd. in Davis 119). In such manner, Malamud’s mission was to convey this tradition to the young generation who seemed to be assimilated in American culture, and thus in the danger of forgetting their pastas well as to the more recent Jewish settlers of postwar America who had many doubts and questions regarding the alleged Holocaust and the suffering of the Jews. The embodiment of this mindset is visible in the way his hero functions. For the most part, Yakov Bok is a Jew to whom suffering is imposed because he is a Jew. When questioned about his crime, he answers, If I weren’t a Jew there’d be no crime (TF 158). But on the other hand, this hero is not like his classic counterpart, the schlemiel. He does resist, and through achieving morality he gains a sense of responsibility for his own people. The important point is that there is nothing heroic about him at the outset. Malamud’s heroes are all ordinary men, and thus more believable for the readers. There is no full-scale combat in between. They overwhelm their enemies or captors by moral strength. This is what exactly happens to two of Bok’s guards. Zhitnyak brings Bok a broom to clean his cell, loans him a darning needle and some thread to sew them with (TF 205), and does some other favors which eventually cost him his job. Kogin’s fate is even worse. The moments before leaving for his trial, Bok was made back to his cell to undress and undergo the daily search. After the routine search was done, the Deputy Warden orders him takeoff that stinking undershirt This makes the fixer agitated, and he shouts, I have never taken it off before. Why should I take it off now Why do you insult me At the Deputy Warden’s insistence, however, Yakov rips off his undershirt and flings it into his face. The Deputy Warden, as if waiting for this reaction, draws his revolver and is ready to shoot Bok in the name of interfering with and insulting a prison official in the performance of his duty when Kogin stops him and says, “I’ve listened to this man night after night, I know his sorrows. Enough is enough, and anyway it’s time for his trial to begin The Deputy Warden orders Kogin out of his way, but he pressed the muzzle of his revolver against the Deputy Wardens neck (TF 325-26). Ina duel-like scene, Kogin is shot and dies.