Based on the story of a Russian Jew, Mendel Beiless, who was tried and acquitted in czarist Russia for the ritual murder of a Christian child, The Fixer artistically re-creates that history. It also represents, in its theme, persecution in general. Bernard Malamud creates in this novel a story like a parable, similar in theme and style to his other works, that recounts the protagonist’s spiritual growth and affirms personal dignity and moral integrity even in a world that seems incomprehensible. Yakov Bok, the hero, a Jew, comes to define himself, value suffering, and feel most free when most confined.
Yakov, a fixer or handyman, has had bad luck. With little work in his Jewish village and a wife first disappointing him in being childless then deserting him, he feels himself a prisoner of his circumstances. He sets off for Kiev, a city known for its anti-Semitism, in hopes of changing his life. In Kiev, Yakov, finding no work in the Jewish sector, begins looking outside the ghetto, which is illegal. Coming upon a drunken man who is lying unconscious in the street, Yakov helps the drunk, although Yakov recognizes him as an anti-Semite. To reward Yakov, the man offers him a job, which Yakov accepts with misgivings because it is outside the ghetto. One day Yakov reads in the paper of the ritual murder of a Christian child. The next day he is accused of the murder and put in prison. He is held for thirty months before being brought to trial.
The next three-quarters of the novel describes Yakov’s physical agonies and spiritual growth while imprisoned. This growth is presented in his actions, dreams, hallucinations, perceptions, and memories during the daily suffering he undergoes—from deprivation of basic necessities and the torture of poisoning and chaining to the humiliation of the daily physical searches. During this time, he learns.
He discovers the strength of hate, political power, and historical events and sees that an individual is, by force, a political being. Secretly reading the Old then the New Testament, he feels connected with his people, yet fully appreciates the story of Christ. He develops compassion for the suffering of others. He acknowledges the suffering of the guard, who tells his story. Yakov forgives his wife and acknowledges his own part in their failed relationship. He accepts fatherhood, symbol of adulthood and personal identity, by declaring paternity to her illegitimate child, enabling her to return to life in her village without shame. At the same time he refuses to sign any documents that will free him by blaming other Jews. He also refuses to admit guilt. He finds, in identifying with his group and in willingly suffering for them that, despite what may happen to him, he is free.
Yakov Bok, a fixer, decides in his thirties to leave his native village and go to the big city of Kiev, in search of a better life. His father-in-law, Shmuel, comes to see him off. They talk, a bit gingerly, about the fact that his wife, Raisl, daughter of Shmuel, left him a couple of months earlier and ran off with a stranger. Yakov feels humiliated by this, because he is the laughingstock of the village. Yakov reminds Shmuel that his daughter is also barren, for in the nearly six years they lived together she failed to give him a child. Yakov is also pessimistic about the village’s economic future; he is finding it harder and harder to make a living there as a fixer and fears there will likely soon be pogroms in the area.
Shmuel gives Yakov his horse and wagon in exchange for Yakov’s cow, which he hopes will prove more profitable. His parting advice to his son-in-law is to recall that it is illegal for Jews to live in Kiev, except in specified Jewish districts, and to advise him to settle in the Jewish district near the synagogue, because without spiritual support a Jew will be vulnerable in a hostile world. Soon after Yakov sets out, his wagon fails him. A wheel breaks, and even the fixer cannot repair it. He continues on...
(The entire section is 3,518 words.)