Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1975
"Permit me to ask, Yakov Shepsovitch, are you a father?"
"With all my heart."
"Then you can imagine our anguish," sighed the sad-eyed Tsar.
This exchange, coming at the end of Bernard Malamud's most harrowing novel, The Fixer, represents a staple in the articles of faith followed by fiction writers: that the truth one feels is more significant than the sum total of what has gone on in life. Yakov Bok is charged with the mutilation of a twelve-year-old boy, a charge that the Tsar's government hopes will create social unrest between Christians and Jews and distract them all from the government's near collapse. In actuality, Bok has no children. Nor does he have any reason to lie and say that he has. This discussion takes place during a fantasy en route to the court date that will decide his fate, after two years of pointless abuse and humiliation. If we assume that he has no reason to answer other than truthfully in his fantasy, and that he is not mistaken about offspring (a subject that is so close to his heart throughout the book that he surely would remember), then we have to conclude that he is telling the truth; if not the literal truth, then a psychological truth.
There are other moments that shine throughout the final chapters of The Fixer, that leap out at the reader, that suggest themselves as the Key to What All of This Suffering Has Been For. There is the sacrifice that Kogin the guard makes, for instance, putting his life on the line when he cannot witness any more torture, or Yakov defiantly throwing his filthy undershirt in the nameless Deputy Warden's face, or his exclamations in praise of liberty and revolution and "Death to the anti-Semites." These are all memorable dramatic moments, satisfying to readers who have spent several hundred pages waiting for something to happen. They all represent changes Yakov has gone through, and that the world had gone through because of him. All of the various dramatic moral twists come together in the question of fatherhood. In this novel, fatherhood represents both identity and responsibility, the two ways of knowledge that Yakov Bok has to accept if he is ever to escape his suffering. Responsibility is every parent's fate: it is in acting as a conduit, of conveying the identity of Judaism from previous generations into the future, that he fails and fails again until his sufferings have finally taught him better.
There is every reason for the thread of Jewish identity to die out with Yakov. Early in his life he learned the lesson that Judaism is trouble for its adherents. His father was killed for being a Jew, during an act of random violence that targeted him for nothing more than his religion. Yakov was raised in an orphanage, and, as if the story of his father's death hadn't been enough, experienced one of the periodical frenzies against Jews that swept over the Russian countryside in the late 1800s—a pogrom. Like a mythic hero, he had emerged from underground after three days, to take in the image of a Jew murdered and humiliated, his body being eaten by a pig. Of course nothing would be sacred for him. He had no religious training—"Torah I had little of and Talmud less," he explains of the orphanage he was raised in—but he was well trained in the social consequences of being a Jew.
One striking aspect of the early chapters of the novel, in Book I before Yakov leaves the shtetl, is the rapport that he has with his father-in-law, Shmuel. "A father-in-law's blood was thicker than water," he thinks regarding the uneven trade of his milking cow for the old man's decrepit horse. Still, it is not a blood relationship, but is founded on something that would seem even less substantial: their point of intersection is the wife who ran away from Yakov, and as a result one might expect his relationship to be even worse than an average in-law bond, not better. Yakov lets no opportunity pass to curse Raisl for leaving, and though it plainly hurts Shmuel he continually tries to soften his son-in-law, to make him a more forgiving man and consequently a better Jew, "What she did I won't defend—she hurt me as much as she did you," he tells Yakov. "Even more, when the rabbi says she's now dead my voice agrees, but not my heart.... I've cursed her more than once but I ask God not to listen."
In no small way, Shmuel's relationship with Yakov mirrors the way Shmuel feels about his daughter: they both hurt him, but he absorbs it. It is not his religion that tells him how to accept misfortune, but instead he uses religion as a tool to put up with his lot. It is almost impossible to not see him as a father figure to Yakov, in the way that he frets, cajoles, bickers, pleads, and prays that the fixer will become a better man. When he visits Yakov in jail, though, his message is rejected. At the height of his tribulation, the last thing Yakov wants to hear is that faith will make his misery worthwhile. "Ach, why do you make me talk fairy tales?," he asks, rejecting his people's faith while at the same time showing the speech pattern taught him by his culture. In the end, though, Yakov sees the full significance of his responsibility to Shmuel for what he has taught him about himself: "If I must suffer," he thinks, "let it be for Shmuel."
There are minor father figures among the Russians. When Bibikov first interrogates Yakov, he mentions as he is leaving, "I have to hurry now. My boy has a fever. My wife gets frantic." At the time, his domestic concerns might seem small to Yakov, faced with a fabricated murder charge, but in the greater scope of the novel Bibikov's intact family stands out as a healthy concern, especially when he is compared to the Russians who spend their time persecuting Jews. The fact that he mentions this small detail shows the closeness and confidentiality that he feels toward Yakov which, ultimately, is what gets him killed.
Lebedev's relationship with his daughter is inverted: he has become, through alcoholism, the child that has to be watched after, to be found in the streets when he doesn't come home, and tucked in when he does, and she in return is promiscuous. Marfa Golov's nightmarish relationship with her young delinquent son, Zhenia, whom she insists was a saint, proves abusive from her own over-sweetened testimony, even without any proof that she was actually involved in his murder. It is the guard Kogin, though, who teaches Yakov the most about the suffering that must be borne in parenthood. Increasingly throughout the story, he expresses his worries about the trouble his son Trofim will get into, a fear that turns out justified when Trofim kills a man while robbing his house. "He came to an end I had predicted for him, all of a father's love gone for nothing," Kogin tells Yakov, and then he commits his most humane act toward his prisoner, offering him a cigarette. In the end, he takes responsibility for saving Yakov's life, the way he once took responsibility for his son, because he identifies with him: "I know his sorrows,"' he says while defending him.
While The Fixer moves upward, from the absent father figures introduced in the first chapter to fathers who accept their children and are willing to suffer for them, there is also a rise in the instances of child-images in Yakov's life. Chronologically, his story starts back even before the incidents that are described in the book. The chain of events is set into motion by his wife Raisl's abandonment of him, once it was determined that they could not conceive a child together. Early in the story, when her father asks him why he quit sleeping with her he responds, "how long can a man sleep with a barren woman? I got tired of trying." His despair about being childless has led to Raisl leaving in frustration, which makes Yakov himself leave the shtetl. Departing from his religious surroundings gives him the illusion of freedom that makes him walk into the danger of working in an area where Jews are forbidden, which makes him a suspect. Much as he regrets not having children, he is not ready for fatherhood at the beginning of the novel. He is more prepared to be a drifter, lacking identity and lacking responsibilities. He is well suited to excel as a modern urban man, with no family to tether his career, free to excel at his own pace. By going to Kiev instead of sitting around waiting for Raisl to come back or staying anchored within his religious community, he is making the most of his situation.
There are several ironies about his idea that Raisl is barren. First and most obvious is the fact that she is perfectly able to have children, proven by the fact that she becomes pregnant a few months after leaving Yakov. If the arc of events described in the novel springs from the idea that she could never conceive, it is sprung in error. Despair in itself is sad enough, but the despair that Yakov took for granted, the empty future he predicted, is a hoax in itself. Another twist of fate is that the family that would have held them together comes at a time when they can least use it: Yakov is in jail, and Raisl is struggling to make enough to feed herself and her father. Still, with no better reason than a growing sense of moral obligation, Yakov writes out a lie claiming responsibility for the child, an act that comes along with his refusal to lie about the truth of his guilt on a confession. Raisl's child, Chaiml, is Jewish, contrary to what Yakov has always suspected about the man with whom she ran away.
The one image of a child that shows readers that Yakov has come around to the mature sensibilities required by parenthood is the identification he has with the young Cossack soldier who is mutilated outside of his carriage during the chaotic final scene. Yakov notices him, riding on a gray mare, trying to keep the crowd in order, "[a]nd though he had no reason to, he smiled a little at the Cossack for his youth and good looks, and for being, as such things go, a free man, give or take a little." In the next minute, a bomb explodes, and as the smoke clears. Yakov sees that the young man's foot has been blown off. As they carry him away Yakov feels empathy for this boy who is everything he is not—young, free, Catholic. He is able to understand the soldier's hurt and confusion, which mirrors his own suffering: "he looked in horror and anguish at Yakov as though to say, 'What has my foot got to do with it,'" showing a sense of absurdity with which Yakov could certainly identify.
From this experience, Yakov realizes that the fight is not between practitioners of different faiths or classes. He is as responsible for the young Cossack as he would be for his own son, and, when, in his fantasy, the Tsar tries to make himself a sympathetic figure by talking of his own son, Yakov realizes that he has a duty to all those who are suffering because of the privileged class. In his dream, he shoots the Tsar, so that in his reality he can make the world safe for the children of future generations.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2238
The movies invariably "discover" a novelist just after he produces his poorest work. Bernard Malamud is a gifted writer, and The Assistant seems to me a remarkable achievement, subtly controlled, tartly observed, harrowing, yet a genuinely poetic and compassionate vision of human pain. In The Fixer Malamud abandoned a world he knew firsthand to grapple with the Jewish Problem and the indomitability of the human spirit: a fictionalization of the case of Mendel Beilis, a Jew accused of the ritual murder of a child in czarist Russia. The result was a pretty disastrous novel, but a natural for the best-seller list, with just enough pretension for the Pulitzer committee and plenty of lurid thrills for the hungry suburban sadomasochists. The prison scenes in the novel, savored in rancid detail, are as sensational and as revolting as in any piece of porno-violence I can imagine, but since Malamud's reputation had already been secured, sophisticated readers were quite prepared to suffer along with Yakov Bok. Even the novel's tepid liberal sermon about injustice and conscience is a fraud. Ostensibly a protest against hate and prejudice, The Fixer's cartoon-simple pageant of Russian sadists and bigots reveals exactly the kind of small-minded stereotyping that it pretends to deplore.
Now John Frankenheimer, one of the most talented American filmmakers working today, has fallen victim to the material. His film of The Fixer, though well photographed and well acted, inherits all of the weaknesses of the original. With a little less reverence for Malamud the film might have worked. The most interesting element in the novel was the characterization of Yakov Bok, particularly in the opening scenes. (These turn out to be the best scenes in the film too—Alan Bates perfectly captures Bok's timidity and self-deprecating sense of humor.) Malamud had done this character more fully before, and so had Saul Bellow Philip Roth Bruce Jay Friedman, and other Jewish writers. But to film audiences the character of the schlemiel, introverted, anxious, masochistic, may still be relatively fresh; only this past year, in Sidney Lumet's underrated Bye Bye Braverman, the first half of I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, moments of Barbara Streisand's performance in Funny Girl, have American movies begun to absorb some of the ethnic inflections of Jewish-American folklore.
But it was not the schlemiel hero of The Fixer that attracted Frankenheimer to the material. His films almost always deal with extreme forms of degradation, persecution, oppression, whether it is parental oppression in The Young Stranger and All Fall Down, political oppression in The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, or weird, inexplicable, almost preternatural oppression in the science fictional Seconds. And he has even done one other film about a man in solitary confinement, the excellent Birdman of Alcatraz. Frankenheimer is obsessively drawn to the figure of the victim, isolated, utterly defenseless, but struggling desperately to reassert his freedom against monstrous forms of tyranny. To say that there is something paranoid and masochistic in Frankenheimer's temperament is probably true, but those psychological labels do not help to understand his art. The pertinent point is that out of profound personal anxieties, he has created at least twice—in The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds—brilliant, original filmic nightmares of persecution. I felt that if anyone could salvage The Fixer, he could. I was not particularly looking forward to the film, but I thought it might turn out to be the definitive study of man in captivity. Instead, it remains a sluggish, morbid, pompous preachment.
The crucial question to be asked about the film, as about the novel: Why was it made? What is the purpose of lingering on the suffering of an abused Jew in pre-Revolutionary Russia? This may seem like a naive question; many people assume that the most awesome and uncompromising art concerns man's past barbarisms to his fellow man. I am not so convinced of the automatic relevance of watching the savagery of another era, and I should say that I am just as uneasy about most of the films that treat the Nazi experience: I resent the grim, gratuitous (though visually inventive) Czech film The Fifth Horseman Is Fear for essentially the same reasons that I resent The Fixer. It is supposed to be bracing to know of the atrocities that men have committed out of fear and hate and ignorance in this twentieth century. But we all do know by now. Does every reminder deserve our respect? Is it unreasonable to ask for some fresh insight, some illumination of our own society, or the human condition, or even the possible explanations for these atrocities? Just to present the atrocities is not illuminating.
Some of the best films ever made are historical fictions, but they do find a way of implicating us. Even simple horror films sometimes upset our complacency; The Fixer, gruesome as it is, only intensifies it. Audiences do penance for a couple of hours, devoutly acknowledging the wretchedness of the 1910 Russian Jew's existence, and then, cleansed of guilt, return to their newspapers and TV sets as stupefied as ever. The film doesn't connect with their own experience—it's too narrowly about a specific, remote time and place, and at the same time, paradoxically, too "universal", too general. It has no resonances, no aftertaste.
Of course it's easy enough to come up with some ringing statements about what The Fixer "really" means, but these probably don't have much to do with the experience of watching the film. For The Fixer, seizing at the prestigious laurels of High Art, in fact trades on the emotional responses of the very lowest. Who doesn't cringe at the closeup of a swollen, bloody foot or moan when a man is beaten to unconsciousness? Just as instinctively, the audience applauds when Yakov, ever humiliated, manages to score a minor point against his tormentors—identifying the Prosecuting Attorney's nose on a chart of "Jewish noses," or dressing up in prayer shawl and phylacteries to frighten off an idiot priest. The Torture Scene, The Triumph of the Underdog, even, for catharsis, The Martyr Thronged by Cheering Crowds—The Fixer is filled with familiar staples of pulp melodrama. These are the easiest responses a film can attempt, and the fact that The Fixer gets them should not be counted in its favor. The pity is that it so rarely tries for more subtle responses.
The screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, and it may not be farfetched to perceive an allusion to his own suffering under the notorious Hollywood blacklist of the McCarthy period: the scapegoat, innocent of all crimes, victim of a government's paranoid "international Jewish conspiracy" theory (the words are from the film), imprisoned and tormented because his ideas are alien. There are some leaden nuggets of political theory—people are united by hate, not love, and it serves the government's purpose if they hate the Jews rather than the czar—but it makes just as much sense to interpret the film's solemnity as Trumbo's self-pitying identification with the innocent man subjected to monumentally inhuman treatment. This interpretation does not, of course, make the film any more interesting.
Trumbo, always interested in themes of social significance, may have influenced the film in another, less obvious, but very important way. The express message of The Fixer is that Yakov Bok, through his suffering, develops for the first time a social and political conscience, a hitherto unfelt loyalty to the Jewish people, a sense of responsibility to his fellow man. As he tells the minister of justice "Something in me has changed. I fear less and hate more.... If the state acts in ways that are abhorrent to human nature, it's the lesser evil to destroy the state." His own degradation is supposed to have transformed him from a nonpolitical man into a quiet sort of political revolutionary. But at another point late in the film, Yakov's lawyer gushes, "It's a great honor to defend you," and Yakov replies determinedly, "It's just a dirty suffering. There's no honor in it." In fact, this is how the film looks to us—simply one dirty humiliation after another, without honor, without meaning. But then Yakov's passionate, defiant speech to the minister of justice seems incongruous. Is the imprisonment "just a dirty suffering" or is it a semi-heroic endurance that leads to a significant spiritual awakening? The film cannot really play for both cynicism and inspiration. It would be extremely difficult to dramatize an inner conversion, a growth of conscience and political involvement in any film. But it is impossible when another strain of the film—the desire to make the imprisonment look as dirty and gruesome as possible—is working directly against the conversion story. It is easy enough for Trumbo to write a few lines of dialogue in which Yakov asserts that a transformation has taken place, but film is a visual medium, and we believe what we see, not what we're told. A novel has an advantage in this respect because it can render the workings of consciousness. But the conversion motif was the book's biggest weakness too. Malamud tried to build the sense of Yakov's inner maturation through lengthy passages in which the fixer struggled with Spinoza, History, and Necessity or spoke sociology with a fantasized czar. These were the worst pieces of writing in the novel, because they did not belong to the consciousness of an ignorant handyman but were imposed from without, and written, besides, with all of the gassy awkwardness that usually overwhelms an artist when he wants to prove that he is also a philosopher. These monologues are luckily missing from the film, but nothing is there to replace them. Frankenheimer has been unable to find a way of visualizing an intellectual conversion, and so that conversion seems, as in the novel, merely a sop to the audience—a flimsy rationalization for all of the morbidity. Malamud and Trumbo and Frankenheimer piously raise their eyes to heaven at The Fixer's finale; our eyes, unfortunately, are still on the shit on the prison floor.
What destroys the film is that Frankenheimer, fascinated by images of extreme suffering, cannot quite explore that obsession because he is burdened with Malamud's, and Trumbo's, and undoubtedly his own social pretensions. In a strange way I would have more respect for the film if it were a relentless, grotesque, hysterical study of confinement—in other words, more sadistic—because then the film would be truer to Frankenheimer's personal vision of oppression; and only this kind of intense personal document, even if shrill and overwrought, could unsettle us by touching on the unspoken terrors that we share. But the film is too "tasteful", too "responsible" to abandon its flat message about political commitment for fullscale cinema of cruelty. That is The Fixer is not quite harrowing enough to involve us deeply, not quite cruel enough to be invigorating; it is just cruel enough, basted with unctuous moral fervor, to be unpleasant and offensive.
I have written about the film at this length partly because I dislike it, but also because I admire Frankenheimer and am concerned about his career. Even in The Fixer there are sequences that show unmistakable cinematic talent—the violently edited pogrom at the start of the film, a tense scene in which an old Hassid guiltily, embarrassedly eats a piece of matzo in Yakov's room, the startling cut from dark prison cell to the brightly lit palace of the minister of justice or, later, to the open air of Yakov's village as he escapes in a moment of fantasy. Frankenheimer does beautiful things with editing, and he can make just the sudden appearance of sunlight very moving. But like most American directors, Frankenheimer is at a tremendous disadvantage, in comparison with European directors, because he does not write his own scripts. He is at the mercy of other men's ideas. And he is all too susceptible to the Socially Significant theme, as he has already demonstrated in The Young Savages and Seven Days in May. The careers of our talented directors are likely to be crippled because they are rarely given complete freedom to explore themes that concern them; they rarely have an opportunity to experiment or to grow. They must buy best-sellers, and work from scripts by men whose concerns may be subtly different from their own. It is little wonder that so many American films are so messy. Of course some of the mess in The Fixer can be attributed to Frankenheimer's own uncertainties. It may be a personal desire to imagine the victim's triumph over tyranny that leads him to put so much false emphasis on Yakov Bok's internal transformation. The Fixer is not the first of his films to have an uplifting ending. (It may not be irrelevant that his two best films, The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds, are tragedies.) But the commercial system in which American films are made—the stress on properties from other media, the hostility between the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild, the pressure to make large statements that can make millions quiver—places an unnatural burden on the creative artist. Any artist may fail because of his own confusions; but the artist-in-Hollywood has to reckon with the confusions of too many other people. The Fixer represents a particularly sad example of what the outcome is likely to be.
Source: Stephen Farber, in a review in Hudson Review, Vol. XXII, 1969, pp. 134-38.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2243
If I say, as I am prepared to do, that Bernard Malamud's The Fixer is one of the finest novels of the postwar period, I don't see how there can be much argument. If, however, I go on to agree with the publishers that it is a "great" novel, I may be in semantic difficulties. Recently I asserted that there is greatness in John Barth's Giles Goat-boy, which I believe to be true. Robert Scholes, on the other hand, writing in the New York Times Book Review, admitted of no qualification; he said flatly that it is "a great novel." He made a good case, too, but at the end he brought in an argument that I found disturbing. Barth's audience, he said, "must be that same audience whose capacities have been extended and prepared by [James] Joyce, [Marcel] Proust, [Thomas] Mann, and [William] Faulkner." He continued: "For some time we have been wondering what to do with the training given us by those giants of modern fiction, wondering whether we were really meant to expend our hard-earned responsiveness on such estimable but unexciting writers as C. P. Snow and Saul Bellow. The answer now seems clear. The difference between competence and genius can hardly be made clearer. And Barth is a comic genius of the highest order."
Who are the "we" who have been wondering? Mr. Scholes, I gather, and probably other academic critics. This calls to mind what Bellow said in his address to the recent International Congress of the P.E.N. Club. He complained that various critics in university posts had laid hold of the avant-garde heroes of an earlier generation, using their work to set a standard by which contemporary writers could be judged and condemned. In the version I read, in the Times Book Review, Bellow's argument wasn't completely clear, but I think I understand at least part of what he was saying. When Scholes calls Snow "estimable but unexciting," I can follow him, for Snow has deliberately adopted old-fashioned techniques, and the wonder is that he has managed to do as much with them as he has. But Bellow has constantly experimented with the form of the novel and has developed a powerful style that is peculiarly his. Bracketing Snow and Bellow tell us nothing about Barth—though something about Scholes.
What I am saying, of course, is what I have said before--that there are more kinds than one of literary merit and even greatness. I think Giles Goat-Boy and The Fixer are both unusually good and unusually important novels, though they have little in common except their excellence. Malamud has told a straightforward story in language of the greatest austerity. Although he began his literary career with a novel based on myth, The Natural, and has often introduced elements of fantasy in his short stories, The Fixer is realistic in the most precise sense of that term. But the story is told so purely and with such power that it has the large meanings—what some people call the "universal" meanings—of legend.
Malamud tells about a Jewish handyman who was arrested in Kiev in 1911, was charged with having committed a ritual murder, and suffered greatly for more than two years before being tried. To begin with, before I had read the book, I wondered why Malamud should expect his readers to be concerned about what happened to this one Jew half a century ago, in view of what had happened to six million Jews during the Second World War. It did not take me long to realize that Malamud had deliberately set himself this problem. Six million was a figure, but a man was a man. If he could tell this story well enough, he must have decided, this one unprepossessing man, this Yakov Bok, could represent not only the martyrs of Belsen and Auschwitz but all victims of man's inhumanity. We the readers could be made to feel for this one man what we could not possibly feel for the six million.
Malamud has written: "After my last novel I was sniffing for an idea in the direction of injustice on the American scene, partly for obvious reasons—this was a time of revolutionary advances in Negro rights—and partly because I became involved with this theme in a way that sets off my imagination in terms of art." He thought of civil rights workers in the South, of Sacco and Vanzetti, of Dreyfus, of Caryl Chessman, and then he remembered Mendel Beiliss, about whom his father had told him, and something happened. "In The Fixer," he explains, "I use some of his [Mendel Beiliss's] experiences, though not, basically, the man, partly because his life came to less than he paid for by his suffering and endurance, and because I had to have room to invent. To his trials in prison I added something of Dreyfus's and Vanzetti's, shaping the whole to suggest the quality of the afflictions of the Jews under Hitler. These I dumped on the head of poor Yakov Bok. So a novel that began as an idea concerned with injustice in America today has become one set in Russia fifty years ago, dealing with anti-Semitism there. Injustice is injustice."
Yakov Bok is nobody but Yakov Bok, and he is one of the most fully rendered characters in modern literature. An odd-job man, a Jack-of-all-trades, a fixer, he lives in a small Jewish community near Kiev. His wife, by whom he has had no children, has deserted him, and he finally makes a deal with her father and sets out for the city with the latter's horse and wagon. He is poor, proud, and bitter, with a fine sardonic wit. When his father-in-law tells him that, in going to the city, he is looking for trouble, he replies, "I've never had to look." When his wagon collapses, he asks, "Who invented my life?" Although he has had almost no formal education, he has read Spinoza and tried to understand him, and he calls himself a freethinker.
Even before he has reached Kiev, Yakov has encountered a violently anti-Semitic ferryman, and from the first he feels the hostility of the city. Bitter as he is, however, he has compassion for mankind, and when he sees a drunken Russian dying in the snow, he rescues him even though the man wears the badge of the Jew-hating Black Hundreds. Nikola Maximovitch, though he would exterminate the Jews, is capable of crying over the death of a dog, and he wants to reward his benefactor, whom he does not know to be Jewish. Thus Yakov is given a job, which he badly needs, in a brickyard. Because he is living in a district forbidden to most Jews, he is ill at ease, but he has to have money to live on.
When he is arrested, Yakov assumes that he is to be punished for some minor offense, and it takes him a while to grasp the horrible nature of the charge against him. Only when he is confronted with the witnesses for the prosecution, mostly men and women who are using anti-Semitic prejudice to conceal their own crimes, does he realize that he is the victim of a monstrous conspiracy. And he asks, as who wouldn't, why me?
Because the prosecution's case is so weak, Yakov's trial is postponed for two years, during which time his miseries multiply. Lodged in filth, never adequately fed, bowed down with disease, given little or nothing with which to occupy his mind, systematically tortured by the guards, finally chained to the wall of his cell, he endures such suffering as the reader is loath to contemplate. But Malamud, without sensationalism, without high-pitched emotionalism, makes us feel what we would prefer not to feel. Having himself fully entered into Yakov's ordeals in an extraordinary feat of empathy, he forces us to go at least some distance with him.
One of the ways in which Malamud compels realization of Yakov's suffering is to let him compare present with past. The life in the shtetl, which had once seemed to him poisonously narrow and dull, now takes on an idyllic aspect: "You can smell the grass and the flowers and look at the girls, if one or two happen to be passing by along the road. You can also do a day's work if there's work to do. Today there's a little carpentering job. You work up a sweat sawing wood apart and hammering it together. When it's time to eat you open up your food parcel—not bad. The thing about food is to have it when you want it. A hard-boiled egg with a pinch of salt is delicious. Also some sour cream with a cut-up potato. If you dip bread into fresh milk and suck before swallowing, it tastes like a feast.... After all, you're alive and free. Even if you're not so free, you think you are."
But later the miseries that made Yakov's pre-Kiev life appear a paradise come to seem a kind of happiness: "Yakov thought how it used to be before he was chained to the wall. He remembered sweeping the floor with the birch broom. He remembered reading Zhitnyak's gospels, and the Old Testament pages.... He thought of being able to urinate without having to call the guards; and of only two searches a day instead of a terrifying six. He thought of lying down on the straw mattress any time he wanted to; but now he could not even lie down on the wooden bed except when they released him to.... Yakov thought he would be glad if things went back to how they had once been. He wished he had enjoyed the bit of comfort, in a way of freedom, he had then."
Throughout the days and months and years of pain and despair, Yakov faces two temptations. What the anti-Semites in the government, from Czar Nicholas down, want to prove is that ritual murder is an essential part of the Jewish religion and that therefore all persecutions of the Jews are justified. More than once they promise Yakov that if he will testify that the boy was murdered by Jews for reasons of ritual, he himself will be treated leniently. Although he has never felt close to the Jewish community and has rejected the Jewish faith, he refuses to lend himself to so evil a conspiracy, even when his wife is sent to his cell with a confession for him to sign.
The other temptation is suicide. The idea inevitably occurs to him as soon as he understands the power of the forces drawn up against him. When the one Russian official who has shown a rudimentary sense of decency in his dealings with Yakov is framed because of that fact and sent to Yakov's prison, where he hangs himself, the poor persecuted Jew thinks of following his example. But he realizes that suicide would also be a betrayal of millions of people. "He's half a Jew himself, yet enough of one to protect them. After all, he knows the people; and he believes in their right to be Jews and to live in the world like men. He is against those who are against them. He will protect them to the extent that he can." "I'll live", he cries out in his cell, "I'll wait, I'll come to my trial."
All that he has endured has strengthened Yakov. Always a thinker in his uneducated way, he has recognized his historic role and, though he laments its being forced on him, he accepts it. "We're all in history", he thinks, "that's sure, but some are more than others, Jews more than some." As skeptical as ever about the existence of God, he believes that it is incumbent on men to stand for what they believe. Although in some ways more tolerant, for instance of his wife, he has not become saintly: "I'm not the same man I was. I fear less and hate more."
The climax of the novel comes in an imaginary dialogue between Yakov and the Czar. After describing his own misfortune, the latter says, "Surely it [suffering] has taught you the meaning of mercy?" Yakov replies, "Excuse me, Your Majesty, but what suffering has taught me is the uselessness of suffering, if you don't mind me saying so." He reminds the Czar of his failures as a ruler: "You had your chances and pissed them away. There's no argument against that. It's not easy to twist events by the tail, but you might have done something for a better life for us all—for the future of Russia, one might say, but you didn't." While a carriage brings him closer to his trial, Yakov thinks: "As for history, there are ways to reverse it. What the Czar deserves is a bullet in the gut. Better him than us." "One thing I've learned, he thought, there's no such thing as an unpolitical man, especially a Jew. You can't be one without the other, that's clear enough. You can't sit still and see yourself destroyed." There the book ends, and, when one remembers what was in Malamud's mind when it was conceived, rightly ends. Yakov has learned not merely to endure, if I may use William Faulkner's favorite word, but also to resist.
Source: Granville Hicks, "One Man to Stand for Six Million," in Saturday Review, September 10, 1966, pp. 37-39.