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Holy Cow

Entry 908 posted in: 1. General Mish Mash

I’m typing this entry, sitting on a Serena chair with a solid wooden seat and armrests, a moulded dark grey leather back and four anthracite coloured legs. Some of the dark grey paint is already coming off. A 17-inch Dell 1702 flat panel UltraSharp colour monitor stands in front of me. My fingers rest on a Dell RT7D30 multimedia Belgian azerty keyboard. If you take a closer look at the interior of the keyboard you are likely to find crumbs of Spar American Style Apple Pie Cookies, small pieces of dried mozzarella cheese originating from Ristorante deepfreeze pizza, traces of some mashed potatoes, tomato sauce, a swarm of highly evolved nano-beings that worship the return of the big Coca Cola zero spill. The computer and its accessories have been placed in an Ikea Effektiv light willow cabinet with semi transparent fumed glass doors. The doors are open; otherwise I wouldn’t be able to reach the computer.

I’m quite sure the above probably doesn’t interest you at all; so let me start all over again:

There was a time that I read at least a book a week, even more. I guess I read 8 to 10 novels a month. Besides that I had quite an impressive collection of comics or graphic novels as we connoisseurs used to call them. Donald Duck was what we called a comic although we silently revered the originals by Carl Barks. Then came a sudden change of pace. No more comics, no time to read a book. Wife. House. Career. Television and a beer.

But I still read the book reviews in the newspaper. About 6 months ago I read this thunderous review about a hardboiled murder mystery set in an alternative timeline where the people of Israel have a fictional Yiddish homeland in Alaska. The book, so it said, was extremely funny, witty and ingenious and if you only read one thriller a year, this was the thriller to read. My mind reserved some space to contain this information.

Summer Holidays. I’ve got my annual sea and sun crime story to read. I’m entering the bookshop. What do you think I’d pick?

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. I think I will call it YPU from now on.

Americans are known for their streamlined efficiency. There is the, probably apocryphal, story about the US Food And Drugs Administration who asked the Swiss, in name of effectiveness, to get rid of the holes in their Emmental cheese. The Swiss, mental as ever, politely told the Americans to fuck off. But one can’t stop progress, although progress is a rather inappropriate word to define this kind of evolution, and American cheese is now very stackable and transportable, but also almost taste- and fragrance-free.

But enough about cheese. There is still one field were Americans are not as fast, efficient and to the point as I would like them to be. It’s called literature. In American literature less is not more, quite the contrary…

A typical YPU scene looks like this. Landsman, the inquiring police officer parks his car, after we have been informed about his inner musings, the things he ate or didn’t eat in the morning and what kind of noises the car and Landsman’s bowels have made while parking. The detective gets out of the car, after we have been informed of its brand name and type, the building year, the present and previous colours and its average fuel consumption, and we are confronted with a description of the house at the left side, the house at the right side and finally the house in the middle. We know what the present and previous colours of the front door is and were, how many steps it takes to get there, why there is a curtain moving at a window of the third floor and who are the mother, the father, the nieces and nephews of the person who has moved the curtain. We get some historical background of the houses and the street as well and last but not least an explanation why there is a toyb sitting on the dakh. A dozen of pages later Landsman climbs the stairs, knocks at the door and has a word with the supposed witness. "How well did you know the murdered man?", he grumbles in a typical inarticulate way. "I didn’t know the shleper at all!", is the short and sweet answer. Another chapter has been written.

To quote the prophet:

It’s guff. It doesn’t advance the action. It makes for nice fat books such as the American market thrives on, but it doesn’t get you anywhere. You don’t, in short, want to know. (Adams, Douglas: So long, and thanks for all the fish, Pan Books, London, p. 114.)

This also reminds me of the notorious Syd Barrett interview that two Actuel reporters had in 1982 with the ex front man of Pink Floyd, but explaining that here would take us too far like an Emmental cheese looking for an absent hole.

Michael Chabon uses the same rock’n roll swindle as Anthony Burgess did in A Clockwork Orange. Alex, the central character in Clockwork mixed English with Nadsat, Chabon constantly obstructs American English with Yiddish expressions and words. In Clockwork this worked, but I found the same effect in YPU rather tiresome and often silly. It equates with the Mexican archetypical speech form that William Shatner used in his TekWar novels to depict Sid Gomez, the sidekick of detective Jake Cardigan: “Hey gringo, don’t be a loco and leave the muchacha alone or I’m gonna kick you right at the cojones!”

After 100 pages I was still very unimpressed with the novel and I almost gave up reading. But as it was the only unread book in my collection I continued.

Michael Chabon deliberately copies the lyrical similes Raymond Chandler was famous for. Comparing someone’s voice with ‘an onion rolling in a bucket’ can be witty in a P.G. Wodehouse novel, but the only thing I could think of now was ‘why on earth would anybody carry a single onion in a goddamn bucket?’, better to keep it in your pocket then, isn’t it?

In the book nobody, except for the reader of course, suffers from a common headache. In Chabon’s world a man's headache is like ‘a bus parked with its engine running in the middle of his brain’. No, I’m deliberately misquoting here, as a matter of fact it is ‘like the fumes of a bus parked with its engine running in the middle of his brain’. Makes a lot of difference, innit?

And a single-word remark from one character to another is miraculously transformed into ‘a chamber ensemble of
     innocence and
I kid you not, Reader’s Digest editors will not have too many difficulties to condense this book into a Select Edition. Just erase the superfluous synonyms, the figures of speech and the book is shortened by at least 300 pages.

But somewhere between pages 150 and 200 something magical happened and before I could put my finger on it I had passed page 250. The narrative that had started like a diesel train with 105 fully loaded steel wagons heading from Antwerp harbour to a car construction site on the Eastern side of Germany had finally reached full speed and was heading towards Bahnhof West. When the novel asked for an end all emergency brake switches were suddenly pulled leaving the disoriented traveller behind on platform 6. What now?

This is a truly American story. When some Yiddish thugs, (who exploit a drug addiction rehabilitation clinic, that is located in the middle of Tlingit territory, that really is a cover-up for a paramilitary training centre, because their mean goal is to start a violent revolution in Jerusalem,) imprison Landsman they unclothe him to his underpants. Nobody apparently wants a naked Jew in the house. This is in shrill contrast to Mr. James Bond who was always stripped to the bone whenever a traitorous villain like Ernst Stavro Blofeld wanted to torture him. Landsman originally tries to infiltrate the drug clinic as a junkie in need for help, but he is spotted faster than the already cited James Bond in a girl’s dormitory. I can’t tell you too much about the plot, I only understood half of it anyway, but it seems to turn all around a sacred cow in drag. That idea is of course not unique and has already been used by the aforementioned P.G. Wodehouse who devoted a couple of his novels to the Empress of Blandings, but I just realise now that pigs aren’t the most appreciated animals in Jewish culture. Perhaps Michael Chabon is a master of irony because who else would think of painting a cow and hide it between the Indians.

The blurb at the back side of the novel says that this is ‘a dazzling, individual, hyperconfident novel… pure narrative pleasure… only a shmendrik would pass it up”.

Welcome to my world.

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