Paul Goldberg’s debut novel, The Yid, is one of those innovative narratives that defies easy categorization.
It is a historical novel set in Russia in February of 1953 during Stalin’s Jewish purges and just before his death in March. Solomon Levinson, a minor actor in the Yiddish theater, is wakened in the middle of the night by a trio of local policemen come to arrest him. Though he is now an elderly man, Levinson is a veteran of the revolution and the great war, and his unlikely reaction is nothing short of a miracle. Heroically and bloodily escaping from their clutches, Levinson recruits an unlikely cabal of confederates—an elderly Jewish doctor who has lost his position, an African-American expatriate, and a young woman with a cause–to assassinate the Russian leader. In a sense, The Yid is one of those counterfactual narratives dealing with the question, what happens if.
On the other hand, the characters and their machinations are so patently ridiculous that the book seems very much an absurdist novel, modeled appropriately—since our hero is an actor—on the Theater of the Absurd. Indeed the book’s three sections are called “Acts” and there are numerous passages actually presented as stage dialogue, to say nothing of the narrative emphasis on costume and make-up: call it, perhaps, a Novel of the Absurd.
Or call it tragicomedy, as it turns long held European prejudices against the Jews into the stuff of farce, whether it be nonsensical like the length of noses or infamous like the blood libel. You say Jews need Christian blood for their bread, Levinson and crew will show you blood. You say Jews won’t fight, Levinson and crew will show you there’s fight in the old boys yet.
Goldberg’s vision of the world is darkly comic. It is not haphazard that he references work like Kafka’s The Trial; his novel has much in common with the earlier masterpiece. It is no accident that a Yiddish version of King Lear, with its focus on the madness of the world, occupies so much of the book’s attention. Both are emblems for the madness of Stalin’s Russia.
The Yid is the kind of novel that rewards re-reading. Speed reading, skimming won’t do. This is a book that demands the reader’s attention.