If I had ever read Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, I suspect Simone Zelitch’s Judenstaat might bear comparison. They are both, after all, novels about a Jewish Nation That Never Was—although Chabon’s locates itself in Alaska, while Zelitch’s can be found in a Saxony separated from reconstructed post-war East Germany, and home now to a Jewish state whose official business is all conducted through German. But I’ve never actually read more than descriptions and reviews of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, so I’ll have to take Judenstaat solely on its own merits.
Zelitch is a prize-winning author of Jewish fiction: her previous novel, Louisa, won the Goldberg Prize. I’m an Irish atheist whose knowledge of Jewish history and culture is limited to a couple of college courses and some reading. There are nuances here, and probably culturally contingent conversations and references, that I’m bound to miss. With that caveat—
This is a very peculiar book.
The year is 1988. Forty years prior, Judenstaat was officially created, bordering Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. It has hardened its borders with the outside world—built walls around itself—and relegated the indigenous “Saxons” to a second-class status, a second-class status shared by Jews who have removed themselves from the mainstream of their society, who are to “normal” Judenstaat “not like us.”
Judith Klemmer is a documentary-maker and a historian. She’s also a widow, grieving her husband, Hans. Hans was the first Saxon ever appointed as conductor of the National Symphony. Now Judith has been charged with making a documentary about the history of Judenstaat, and the direction it is taking, as the fortieth anniversary of its establishment approaches. In the room where she does her work, she sees, constantly, the silent ghost of her dead husband. When, in the course of cutting the documentary, she encounters footage that presents a controversial picture of one of Judenstaat’s founders, and then gets a note—left by an intruder to her workroom—which reads They lied about the murder, she finds herself drawn to investigate both the footage, and what really happened to her husband.
A more ordinary genre novel would use these elements to tell, most likely, a story part thriller and part supernatural quest, in which Judith takes up the mantle of hero to answer the wrongs of the past. But Judenstaat is not an ordinary genre novel: It rejects entirely the usual conventions of the field in favour of a meditation on memory and amnesia, nation-building and atrocity, colonisation and collective revenge. It is not a straightforward book, and it’s not a comfortable work, and I’m not entirely sure it manages to become more than the sum of its disparate parts. But its argument is an ambitious one, about identity and about the politicisation of various kinds of truth, for as Judith discovers, Judenstaat is founded not just as a response to atrocity, but has an atrocity of its own as one of its founding acts.
It is impossible to read Judenstaat and not see its counterfactual history as one in dialogue with the actual history of Israel and the occupation of Palestine, as much as it is in dialogue with the nature of Jewishness, with the post-war settlement, with the politics of nationhood and the 20th century. But the ways in which Judenstaat engages with the history of the actual Jewish state are not, perhaps, always what one might expect.
I don’t like Judenstaat. That’s not to say it isn’t well-written: As alternate history, it is extremely well-drawn and plausible; and Judith, as a character, is believable and frequently compelling. But as a novel, it offers no response to atrocity but complicity or a refusal to see: It believes in ghosts but not in justice. And so I leave it, having been by turns impressed, baffled, entertained, disappointed, and not a little irritated.
It’s not a book for me. Because I believe in working for the idea of justice—underpinned by mercy. And I don’t quite know what to feel about a novel whose conclusion appears to reject the idea that justice is worth striving for.