by Bernard Malamud
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this novel set during the end of Tsarist Russia concerns the titular handyman, Yakov Bok, an agnostic Jew who leaves his village where he’s had nothing but personal and financial failure and tries his luck in Kiev. There in the big anti-Semitic city, Yakov poses as a goy Russian and becomes a brickyard foreman, not through deliberate machinations but a series of events and lies of omission which make this the easiest and safest course for him. But after a young boy is brutally murdered in the region, the authorities seize on Yakov, a Jew living illegally under false pretenses, as their scapegoat and charge him with killing the boy for magical Jewish blood rituals. He sits imprisoned with little hope, though one or two fair-minded officials sympathize with the injustice of his arrest.
This is a powerful novel, and it is compelling reading because the eventual plight of Yakov is of such interest. In Malamud’s setting, the system and its drivers are not clever or all-seeing, merely thuggish, ignorant, and hypocritical. Though there are bits of circumstantial evidence that hurt Yakov’s credibility (he had previously chased the boy out of the brickyard for vandalism, he took in an old Jew who had been beaten and stanched his bloody head with his own shirt), basically the case against him is made up of whole cloth, invented baseless lies about him personally and the Jewish religion in general. This is particularly ironic and brutal for Yakov because, as noted, he doesn’t consider himself a religious Jew: “From birth a black horse had followed him, a Jewish nightmare. What was being a Jew but an everlasting curse? He was sick of their history, destiny, blood guilt.” One of the book’s most powerful and moving scenes is when Yakov is visited by his humble, God-fearing father-in-law, whom Yakov sends away, saying God is an invention and that he hates him in any case for killing Job’s children, “not to mention ten thousand pogroms.” The book’s purpose, I believe is to expose injustice and to exhort all fair-minded people, especially Jews, to work against it: “there’s no such thing as an unpolitical man, especially a Jew,” Yakov thinks to himself near the end of the book. “You can’t sit still and see yourself destroyed.” And yet, because Malamud has shown that the system is not just weighted against the oppressed but completely unrestrained by any duty to truth or even credibility, that it can manufacture and disseminate inventions, I wonder whether this moral works. What is there to fight, if facts don’t matter and lone voices are silenced? The novel ends on an ambiguous note, but where this scintilla of hope may come from seems unfounded given the rest of Yakov’s experiences.