Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 729
Bernard Malamud readily acknowledged that The Fixer is a fictionalized adaptation of a notorious historical event. Jewish brick factory manager Mendel Beilis was accused of murdering a twelve-year-old Christian boy and of draining the boy’s blood for use in making matzos for Passover. The arrest took place in 1911 in Kiev, and for two years afterward, while the Russian authorities strove to manufacture a believable case against Beilis, the accused languished in jail. A public outcry arose, both inside and outside Russia, at the spectacle of a state system of justice relying, for its case against a Jew, on an absurdly superstitious legend, circulated by anti-Semites, that Jews practiced ritual murder. When Beilis was finally brought to trial in 1913, the court returned a verdict of not guilty.
Malamud takes several significant liberties with the historical truth. For example, Malamud’s victim is a handyman, unlike Beilis, and the owner of the brick factory where Yakov Bok is employed is a Christian anti-Semite, rather than a Jew, as was Beilis’s boss. It is far more important to note how closely Malamud adheres to the main facts of the historical case. One of the finest achievements of the novel is the care and accuracy with which it evokes the atmosphere of czarist Russia in the years before World War I, including the restricted life imposed upon Jews and the horrors of its inhumane prisons and system of justice. As literature The Fixer is, more than anything else, a vivid exercise in historical realism. About three-fourths of the novel focuses on detailed description of what Yakov Bok endures at the hands of prosecutors and prison officials.
An essential feature of the novel is that, while the novel is a third-person narrative, Malamud has contrived to filter all of the novel’s action through the consciousness of Yakov Bok, giving the novel the effect of a first-person narrative. The point of view in the novel is steadily and unequivocally that of the protagonist. As a result, the reader sees the world as Yakov sees it, and that perspective is extremely pessimistic and cynical. Yakov always expects the worst to happen because his life has been an unbroken series of hard blows, beginning with the death of his father in a pogrom when Yakov was an infant. The death of his mother comes soon after, which forces him to spend his lonely childhood and youth in an orphanage. The humiliating disaster of his marriage and the hapless journey to Kiev in which everything goes wrong force from Yakov’s mouth the phrase, “Who invented my life?” This is Yakov’s veiled attack on the God he cannot quite believe in but worships anyway.
Malamud chose the name Bok for his protagonist because it defines his role perfectly. In Yiddish and in German Bok means a he-goat, the traditional image of the outcast and surrogate victim. Yakov Bok is a scapegoat, a born victim, to be blamed for whatever evils befall society and to be cast out of society, taking those evils with him, so society can be cleansed. It is a universal type that Malamud has in mind, to be found in every society, big or small, and in every age. That is why Yakov is a handyman, familiar to everyone yet living on the margins of society, an outsider who is easy to blame for bad times. Malamud seems to have intended Yakov to be an itinerant Everyman, a stranger everywhere, always viewed with suspicion, whose destiny is to bear the burdens of suffering for everyone else when trouble comes. The novel may be read as a protest against society’s tendency to victimize the poor and helpless.
This universal scapegoating impulse, which Malamud saw as the essence of the Beilis case, may explain why Malamud chose to end his novel just as the trial of Yakov is about to begin. Critics have accused Malamud of a failure of nerve in refusing to conclude his novel with the exoneration of the intended victim. Surely Malamud wished to make the point that eventual exoneration, however welcome, cannot cancel the victim’s suffering. By stopping his novel before the trial begins, Malamud forces his reader to focus on the real injustice against which he is protesting, namely the scapegoating itself, and does not allow the reader the false comfort of one isolated happy ending.