D’Jew know what Jew meen? Tales of jewishness and culture, Book review: The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson


Got it in Kathmandu for the bargain price of 250 rps (2.5 USD), but I’m still trying to figure out who is the arsonist that owned it before me

I owe my life, or at least what’s left of my sanity, to second handed bookshops in foreign cities. They are the ones that save me from the dread of not having anything to read anymore, and not having enough money to buy new books. And they are one of the best touristic attraction in any city, because they are a mirror of the country they belong to, and the readers that come to visit them. Those in Kathmandu are no exception, even if they are more a mirror of occidental tourism than Nepalese taste in books -I speak of the ones in the city center that have English books, of course – a point that can be proven simply by saying it is the only place I know in the world where you have a pile of  Hesse’s Siddhartha next to Danielle Steele (those are not bought by the same people, or if they have been, I want to meet this alien). 

In any case, I bought this in the very well furnished “Pilgrim’s Bookshop” in Kathmandu, for a few rupees, probably because it has apparently been through both a fire and a flood, but it is still readable, even if you might have to guess the top right end of some of the pages, which only makes it more exciting.

I had read “J” by Jacobson, which is a very good dystopian novel about two characters meeting by what seems to be chance but really isn’t in an Orwellian future, and, as I bought this without reading the blurb – you find a cheap book that is not “The alchemist”, in a second handed bookshop in Nepal, you take it, that’s the rule – was expecting something similar. It is not.

It is about Julian Treslove, a disheartened former BBC worker, and his two friends; Sam Finkler, a popular philosopher and Libor Sevcik, their former teacher and celebrity journalist, who both recently lost their wives. Treslove, who both idealizes love through the operas he listens to and has no real interest in it, sees his whole world change one night when he is mugged by a woman (superior humiliation) who calls him “Jew”. Treslove, unlike his two friends, is not Jew, but now is somehow persuaded that he must have been all his life.

Through Treslove’s ramblings, Libor’s grief and Sam’s relived debates with his former wife, and their interaction, Jacobson stirs a discussion about the Jewish identity, differences between what is Jewish and what is Zionism, and, through the prism of one culture and religion, really explores what is human culture, aging, and belonging. In that aspect, I found it an amazing book, both incredibly well crafted and precise in its analysis.

It is also a funny book, or at least it is written as one, but it might be not my kind of humor. I would have been content with a observation of modern Jewish culture. I found that the character of Treslove, mostly responsible for the  funniness of the book, is made more unrealistic by the comical side, almost a parody, that is thrust upon him. He is so unflinchingly ignorant in all things “Jew” that his new found admiration for their culture turns almost everything to a parody of itself, if it makes sense. And it creates a distance with the character – which is always what is aimed at in a comic perspective – that, for me, made the whole novel unrealistic, and lost the empathetic connection to the characters. The other characters, like Finkler, a philosopher so obsessed by fame he continuously publishes philosophical books for the public (like “Kant and dating”) are also turned into parodies of themselves, as the same comical trait is reinforced throughout the book. It is still a fascinating book, and a really recommended read, though!


(on Jewish identity) “We tell good creation stories but we do destruction even better, we’re at the beginning and the end of everything. And everyone’s after a piece of the action. Those who can’t wait to pitchfork  us into the flames,  want to go down screaming by our side. It’s one or the other. Temperamentally, you were always going to choose the other.”

“In the stealthy alternations of ruder and sweetness  somewhere between  waking and sleep,  light and darkness, they found – she found, she found – a modus mortis.”

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