Operation Shylock: A Confession

by Philip Roth

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Operation Shylock is Philip Roth’s most complex, convoluted and baffling novel, in which he uses the device of the literary double to parallel his identity and history in the text’s two leading personages. He thereby causes the reader to ponder the provocative and probably insoluble conundrums of fiction’s relation to reality and of autobiography’s role in the working of the literary imagination.

Not only does the protagonist-narrator appear under the name, personal history, and likeness of the author as Philip Roth, but from the book’s opening chapter, another man obtrudes with the same name and in the same likeness, with the same gestures and in identical attire. The narrator, Philip, decides to name his double Moishe Pipik, Yiddish for Moses Bellybutton, a comical shadow and fall guy in Jewish folklore.

Philip is recovering, in his Connecticut home, from withdrawal symptoms after having discontinued taking pills to overcome severe pain resulting from knee surgery. In January, 1988, seven months after coming off the drug, he is informed, by a friend, the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld, that a Philip Roth is lecturing in Jerusalem’s King David hotel on the topic, “Diasporism: The Only Solution to the Jewish Problem.”

Philip phones his impostor, pretending to be a French journalist, and receives a long-distance lecture on Diasporism: It is Pipik’s plan to move all Jews of European descent out of Israel and back to their ancestral countries in the hope of averting a second, Arab-organized Holocaust. Israel, Pipik insists, has become the gravest of threats to Jewish survival because of the Arabs’ resentment of Israel’s expansion. Were European Jews and their families resettled in the lands of their cultural origins, however, only Jews of Islamic descent would be left in Israel. The nation could then revert to its 1948 borders and could demobilize its large army, and Arabs and Israelis would coexist amicably and peacefully.

Philip objects that Pipik’s proposal is wholly naïve, since Europe’s hatred of Jews persists. Pipik responds that Europe’s residual anti-Semitism is outweighed by powerful currents of enlightenment and morality sustained by the memory of the Holocaust. Hence, a Diasporist movement would enable Europeans to cleanse their guilty consciences. Philip’s most caustic rebuttal to Pipik’s argument occurs later in the book:When the first hundred thousand Diasporist evacuees voluntarily surrender their criminal Zionist homeland to the suffering Palestinians and disembark on England’s green and pleasant land, I want to see with my very own eyes the welcoming committee of English goyim waiting on the platform with their champagne. They’re here! More Jews! Jolly good!’ No, fewer Jews is my sense of how Europe prefers things, as few of them as possible.

Flying to Jerusalem, Philip begins a searching interview, to be continued on several occasions in the book, with the distinguished Appelfeld, a Holocaust survivor whom he admires as a spiritual brother to his better self. (This interview was published by The New York Times in February, 1988.) He then attends the trial of John Ivan Demjanjuk, the Ukrainian-born auto worker accused of being the monstrous guard “Ivan the Terrible” Marchenko at the Treblinka death camp. (Israel’s Supreme Court declared Demjanjuk’s identity as Marchenko unproven five months after publication of the novel.)

Roth then comes face to face with his Doppelgänger , shocked to find him dressed in his own preferred outfit of blue Oxford shirt, khaki trousers, V-neck sweater, and herringbone jacket. The perfection of Pipik’s duplication infuriates the original, whose charge of personality appropriation meets a rush of fawning verbosity, with Pipik assuring Philip that he is his greatest admirer. Philip’s response to this bizarre doubling is a...

(This entire section contains 864 words.)

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mixture of outrage, exasperation, fascination, and even amusement.

Hours later, Pipik sends Philip a pleading note: “LET ME EXIST. . . . I AM THE YOU THAT IS NOT WORDS.” Its bearer is a wondrously voluptuous, mid-thirties blonde, Wanda Jane “Jinx” Possesski, an oncology nurse who has become Pipik’s loving companion. In due time, Jinx delivers her life story: hateful, strictly Catholic parents, then a runaway hippie life, abusive men, Christian fundamentalism, a nursing career. She became an anti-Semite out of envy of Jewish cohesion, cleverness, sexual ease, and prosperity. Then she met Pipik as a patient for cancer, now in remission. Thanks to him, she is a recovering anti-Semite, saved by an organization he founded, Anti-Semites Anonymous. When Jinx reveals that Pipik had a penile implant so he could satisfy her, Philip cannot resist the temptation to outdo his double by implanting his unassisted virility on Jinx.

Pipik and Jinx leave Israel and end up in Roth’s Hackensack, New Jersey, where Pipik expires of his cancer hours after the first Iraqi missiles explode in Tel Aviv in January, 1991. In the hope of resuscitating him, Jinx makes love for two days to his penile implant. She relates these events in a letter to Philip that concludes with the defiant comment, “I was far nuttier as a little Catholic taking Communion than having sex with my dead Jew.” In his reply, Philip disciplines his senses enough to renounce the opportunity of repossessing Possesski. His letter to Jinx remains unanswered.