Dystopian fu­ture with­out a past

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mal­colm Forbes

J By Howard Ja­cob­son Jonathan Cape, 336pp, $32.99 HOWARD Ja­cob­son has said that be­fore win­ning the Man Booker Prize for The Fin­kler Ques­tion in 2010 he had a writer’s voice that didn’t chime with pub­lish­ers and read­ers. It was ‘‘like hav­ing too loud a voice for a quiet room’’. The win acted as a wa­ter­shed. ‘‘I feel that voice has been ac­cepted,’’ he says. ‘‘It is a Jewish voice.’’

Read­ers would need to have tin ears not to hear that. Ja­cob­son’s books are peo­pled largely with Bri­tish Jewish char­ac­ters, many of whom are tragi­comic cre­ations well-versed in Jewish hu­mour and of­ten the butt of their own jokes. Self-dep­re­ca­tion and mock-loathing are key.

Guy Able­man, the pro­tag­o­nist of Zoo Time (2012), calls him­self ‘‘a foul-weather Jew’’. ‘‘Jew-bait­ing’’ is men­tioned in Kalooki Nights (2006): ‘‘And we were all Jews who were do­ing it.’’ This gag is re­cy­cled four years later when the epony­mous Sam Fin­kler de­clares he has no anti-Semitic friends. ‘‘Yes, you do,’’ his friend Li­bor replies. ‘‘The Jewish ones.’’

With this in mind, we should ex­pect more of the same from Ja­cob­son’s new novel J, which has been longlisted for the Booker (the short­list will be an­nounced on Tues­day). How­ever, this time that Jewish voice is sub­dued, or at least not overtly pro­claim­ing its Jewish­ness.

Ja­cob­son’s set­ting is a sin­is­ter do­main in the fu­ture, decades after an un­speak­able holo­caust that can be re­ferred to only as ‘‘what hap­pened, if it hap­pened’’. Ja­cob­son pep­pers his nar­ra­tive with many j-words (each time cross­ing his ‘‘j’’ with two hor­i­zon­tal lines, high­light­ing it like a scar­let let­ter) — junk, jam, judge, Je­sus, jazz, joke — but Jews are con­spic­u­ous by their ab­sence. Not once does the word ap­pear.

At the cen­tre of the tale are two lovers. Kev­ern is a 40-year-old wood­turner with no fam­ily left alive. Ailinn is 15 years younger and an or­phan. Recog­nis­ing a kin­dred spirit, Ailinn moves into Kev­ern’s sea­side home in Port Reuben. But prob­lems arise when Kev­ern starts to delve into his hushed-up past. He dis­cov­ers that his par­ents set­tled in Port Reuben not through choice but un­der duress. More wor­ry­ingly, they may in fact have been cousins.

Kev­ern’s in­ves­ti­ga­tions alert the au­thor­i­ties who have en­sured that the past re­mains closed off: his­tory is not taught, di­aries have been de­stroyed and pub­lic records wiped clean — and, with them, pub­lic mem­o­ries. ‘‘The past ex­ists in or­der that we for­get it,’’ one state of­fi­cial ex­plains. Another, tasked with mon­i­tor­ing Kev­ern, warns: ‘‘Dan­ger lurks in nostal­gia.’’

The longer Kev­ern and Ailinn stay with one another, the stronger their sus­pi­cion they were brought to­gether by gov­ern­ing forces and are now be­ing ob­served and con­trolled. A trip to the cap­i­tal, nick­named the Ne­crop­o­lis, is not dis­tract­ing but dis­ori­ent­ing and com­pounds their anx­i­eties. And when a woman is mur­dered and an in­quis­i­tive po­lice­man be­comes the lat­est per­son to hound Kev­ern, the cou­ple’s para­noia is height­ened and their faith in the safety of their ‘‘placid haven’’ shaken.

To say that J is a marked de­par­ture for Ja­cob­son is an un­der­state­ment. Gone are his typi-

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