BY ERIC MARKOWSKY
[This novel is a C4 Great Read.]
Author: Bernard Malamud
1966, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Filed under: Literary
Yakov Shepsovitch Bok is a man without a ruble to his name, a poor Jew from the Pale with dreams of making a life for himself in the capital of Kiev. There, he finds work and a little education. He seems on the verge of turning his life around until a young Christian boy is murdered, and Yakov becomes the State’s only suspect.I didn’t know much about Bernard Malamud before I read The Fixer. I’d heard his name before, but that was where it ended. Not one of his books appeared on any syllabus in any class I took in undergrad or in graduate school, and only one person ever recommended him to me. So now I’m a little miffed that I’ve only just discovered him. How did I miss this? Forget that Malamud won a couple of National Book Awards and the Pulitzer, forget that there’s a PEN award named after him, this is just some of the best prose I’ve ever read. His name belongs next to Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth, and The Fixer belongs next to some of the most important books of the 20th century.
From this simple premise, Malamud draws a story of compelling political and personal complexity. Set in the last decade of the Russian Empire, The Fixer offers a portrait of a society torn between emerging modernism and ancient superstition. Yakov becomes the obsession of an anti-Semitic culture ruled by a paranoid and oppressive government. In need of a public sacrifice, the State will go to any length to make him confess.
And Yakov, the half-educated handyman, makes a strange martyr. Full of self-loathing and doubt, he endures his imprisonment with a perseverant pessimism, believing he might be freed, knowing he won’t, but holding on in spite. Wanting at first only to survive, then later to kill his captors, and then to die, and then, again, to live, Yakov pursues all the options open to a man in leg irons who is strip-searched twice a day.
It’s a heavy read at times, full of brutality and ruminations on Jewish life, God, and Spinoza, but told with a bitter and self-effacing humor. Before leaving for Kiev, Yakov visits one last time with his father-in-law:
They sat in the thin cold house—gone to seed two months after Raisl, the faithless wife, had fled—and drank a last glass of tea together. Shmuel, long since sixty, with touseled grey beard, rheumy eyes, and deeply creased forehead—dug into his caftan pocket for half a yellow sugar lump and offered it to Yakov who shook his head. The peddler—he was his daughter’s dowry, had had nothing to give so he gave favours, service if possible—sucked tea through sugar but his son-in-law drank his unsweetened. It tasted bitter and he blamed existence.
From here, the plot proceeds according to the logic of a bad joke, setting Yakov up to think that life just can’t get any worse right before it does. The novel’s success lies in exhaustively imagining his suffering in a world that would not only create such suffering, but also for some reason seems to need it.
Similar reads: The Magic Barrel (Bernard Malamud), Invitation to a Beheading (Vladimir Nabokov), The Trial (Franz Kafka).