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Book Review: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

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Two wickedly funny jokes run through The Finkler Question. Both of them are deeply personal to the author.

The first is Howard Jacobson’s satiric take on the many wholly disaffected Jews in public life who make it their life’s work to loathe Israel with quite indecent passion.

The second — whose nuances may be absolutely clear only to Jewish readers — is that Sam Finkler’s co anti-hero, Julian Treslove, is in the place where Jews have been throughout history:

He is the non-Jewish outsider desperate to be accepted in Jewish circles. No wonder that in reality Jacobson finds himself forever “to be on the outside of every thing.”

I muse on this in a week in which “life has imitated art imitating life” as the author was heard twice in six days on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs – the programme on which Finkler betrays Israel as well as a taste in music which displeases his wife.

Possibly by prior agreement, presenter Kirsty Young did not mention Israel during the real-life interview, but whatever the reason I find this strange as Jacobson is a most able, stoic defender of the Jewish State when so many of his Jewish colleagues and friends seem bent on its destruction.

He is also supposed to be the first comic writer to win the Man Booker Prize since Kingsley Amis. He is certainly the first to do it with a Jewish story.

Is this why so many reviews have used the book as a platform for airing Jewish jokes? Or is it because the reviewers find the subject too uncomfortable to treat it with real gravity?

It is after all by turns hysterically funny, deeply sad, very wise, sometimes tedious — and gratuitously filthy.

But one pivotal scene has personal resonance for me – and possibly for many other Jewish readers. It occurs when the self-hating Finkler addresses yet another anti-Israel meeting and is surprisingly and deeply angered when a non-Jewish woman in the audience accuses Israel of being “an apartheid country ruled by racist supremacists.”

Suddenly filled with unwonted rage he retorts: ‘“How dare you, a non-Jew . . . how dare you even think you can tell Jews what sort of country they may live in, when it is you, a European Gentile, who made a separate country for Jews a necessity?” Finkler, like Jews throughout history, ran for a while, but ultimately could not hide. He could not continue to repress his Jewish soul permanently.

The moment echoed not only because I now live in Israel, but because I used the same phrase some months ago of one of Jacobson’s best known non-Jewish colleagues.

I, too, felt a surge of ridiculous, unreasonable, contrary anger when I learned that the Kingsley Amis’s son, Martin  claimed he supported Israel because he felt the Jewish State to be in his blood largely since his first great love had been Jewish.

As non-Jews, neither Jacobson’s fictional woman nor the real-life Amis have the layers of history, the atavistic pull from the heart and therefore the inherent “knowingness” of what it means to be Jewish in order to have a love-hate relationship with the Jewish State. It is for Jews alone to have that consanguinity which non-Jews simply cannot share.

It has been suggested that Jacobson should write a ‘Finkler’ sequel. I hope he does not but that he moves on – as I have – and writes of English Jews who settle in Israel. But that’s another question!

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About Natalie Wood

Born in Birmingham, England, U.K., I began working in journalism a month before the 1973 Yom Kippur War began. I emigrated from Manchester to Israel in March 2010 and live in Karmiel, Galilee where I concentrate on creative writing, running several blogs and composing micro-fiction. I feature in Smith Magazine’s Six Word Memoirs On Jewish Life and contribute to Technorati, Blogcritics and Live Encounters magazine.