Though Philip Roth subtitles his twentieth book A Confession, he cautions his reader, “For legal reasons, I have had to alter a number of facts in this book.” Yet Roth’s sly confession later concedes that its own deceit is a matter of more than revising a few litigible details: “Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This confession is false.” Like the proverbial Cretan paradoxically contending that all Cretans are liars, Roth presents a plausible if bizarre story about a famous novelist named Philip Roth and then labels it a sham. Whether the events recounted in Operation Shylock: A Confession constitute “facts” remains as problematic as the credibility of The Facts (1988), an ostensibly guileless memoir that Roth subverts with a framing critique by his fictional surrogate Nathan Zuckerman.
In a psychotic state induced by Halcion, a drug he took to relieve excruciating pain following minor knee surgery, Roth is unable to distinguish illusion from reality. Operation Shylock begins with a harrowing account of his ensuing emotional cnsis. Barely recovered from an ordeal that pushes him to the brink of suicide, he accepts an assignment from The New York Times to interview Aharon Appelfeld, an Israeli author renowned for his novels set during the Holocaust. Shortly before his departure for Jerusalem, Roth receives a call from Apter, a distant Israeli cousin and a Holocaust survivor. Apter tells him that Philip Roth has been reported in attendance at the trial of John Demjanjuk, the Cleveland autoworker who had been extradited to Israel to face charges that he was in reality “Ivan the Terrible,” responsible for thousands of murders at Treblinka. While the public ponders who Demjanjuk really is, Roth must contend with confusion over his own identity, since someone is apparently passing himself off as Philip Roth, the eminent American author whose relationship to the Jewish community has always been tense.
Ever since the publication of his first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), a mordant satire of philistine assimilationist Jews, Roth has been condemned by Jewish leaders for offering ammunition to the anti-Semites. The outrageously priapic Alexander Portnoy of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) offered further provocation to Roth’s Jewish critics, even as the book extended his Faulknerian love-hate fixation with his own people. In The Ghost Writer (1979), not even the martyred Anne Frank, resurrected and transported to America, was safe from the Jewish author’s grandiose designs. In Operation Shylock, an Israeli official accurately describes Roth as “one who has made his fortune as a leading Jewologist of international literature.”
For even secular Jews of the late twentieth century, two themes remain sacred and essential to their identity: the Holocaust and Israel. Operation Shylock mocks and exacerbates Roth’s notoriety as defamer of the Jews by contesting both. It entertains the possibility that Demjanjuk was libeled in the accusation of genocidal violence. It offers the spectacle of Philip Roth as anti-Zionist. The spurious Roth who surfaces in Jerusalem preaches the precepts of Diasporism-the anti-Zionist doctrine that the Ashkenazic Jews of Israel should all return to Europe. Contending that “Israel has become the gravest threat to Jewish survival since the end of World War Two,” the other Roth, who might in “reality” be a private eye from Chicago, insists that the only way to avert a second holocaust worse than the first is for Jews to evacuate the Middle East, where they constitute an easy target for hostile Arab neighbors. Even if the Jews should manage to survive physically in Israel, the price will be spiritual extinction. In their own national homeland, the bogus Roth notes, the Jews have achieved nothing comparable to their cultural and scientific accomplishments scattered in the lands of exile. As “Roth” and Roth encounter the Intifada in the streets of Jerusalem, both conclude that the military response to the Palestinian uprising has de-Judaized the Jews, transformed them into soulless brutes.
“Philip Roth” claims to have met with President Lech Walesa in order to negotiate Jewish repatriation to Poland.
The time has come to return to the Europe that was for centuries, and remains to this day, the most authentic Jewish homeland there has ever hem, the birthplace of rabbinic Judaism, Hasidic Judaism, Jewish secularism, socialism—on and on—. …The time has come to renew in the European Diaspora our preeminent spiritual and cultural role.
When Roth meets the counterfeit “Philip Roth,” he finds that his manic Doppelganger bears an uncanny physical resemblance to himself. Though he privately calls him Moishe Pipik, a Yiddish label that translates him into the ludicrous “Moses Bellybutton,” Roth finds it impossible to dismiss the stranger peremptorily as a crackpot or a charlatan. He is fascinated by...
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