Thursday, September 06, 2007

Jewish identities

Read two books about Jewish identity, one after the other. The first was Philip Roth's 'Operation Shylock - a Confession' (1994) and the other was by Eva Menasse in German 'Vienna' (2005, her debut novel). I see this has been translated into English; same title - I wonder how the Austrian expressions translated?

Roth's book is fairly bizarre; it's about a famous Jewish novelist called Philip Roth who discovers a doppelganger who impersonates Philip Roth, the author, and on his behalf meets politicians all over the world and calls for 'Diasporism', suggesting that the question of Israel can only be solved if the Jews return to the countries they came from in Central and Eastern Europe. Apart from having started an 'Anti-Semites Anonymous' organisation. Both Philip Roths end up in Israel at the time of the John Demjanjuk trial (he was an alleged camp guard somewhere in Ukraine). A bizarre sequence of events follow involving them impersonating each other, meeting and abusing each other, Philip Roth the author meeting a Palestinian friend from his student days and attending a court case in Ramallah, being apparently kidnapped, an involvement with perhaps Mossad. In the middle of this there are many debates about Judaism, its role vis a vis the Palestinians, the effect of the Holocaust on the first post-Holocaust generation, the thinking that goes through recovering anti-semites heads...

It's very weird, especially given the crossing over into real life with Demjanjuk - it makes the book appear like a normal autobiographical description, but Roth denies all links to real life. The writing is of course brilliant - and it's also very funny, though quite scary at times.

Eva Menasse is a journalist, and 'Vienna' is her first book. Like Roth's book, hers is written as if she is telling the story of her family. Strangely, none in the family has names - they are all described in their relationship to the narrator. The book covers the time from her father's birth to the current time, after his death, but it does not proceed in a linear fashion - dashing backwards and forwards. In some ways it's a series of family anecdotes, where for example an uncle is famous for his spoonerisms, the uncle's wife is famous for her meanness and so on. Oh yes, and it's sort of a Jewish family, except that the grandfather and his brother both married gentiles. Which strictly speaking does not make the subsequent generations Jewish, but the author's father's birth is certainly registered in the Jewish community, and he is sent to the UK in the Kindertransport of about 1938, or maybe slightly earlier. Later the narrator's brother, a bit of a rebel, questions the Jewishness of the family, but by then things have become even more complicated with at least one of that generation having married an Israeli woman.

It's a bit strange that the whole family survive the war, and there is no talk of any more remote members losing their lives. The families living in Vienna continue to do so during the war, on account of the gentile wives protecting the lives of their Jewish husbands. I'm not totally convinced about that.

It's a very amusing book and also very Austrian, with folk speaking in quite an Austrian accent. In some ways it's just a family saga, with the Jewishness adding extra interest. Apparently it is not all that loosely based on the author's own family (and remember, no-one has a name in the book....). It will never reach the level of Philip Roth who has a much higher level of intellectuality and wit. The reviews of this book have been very varied, ranging from scathing to good. I found it fairly unputdownable (whereas I finished Roth's book with it's much more complex language and endless contemplations only on the second attempt).