Dan­gers of en­forced for­get­ting

Howard Ja­cob­son’s lat­est is ‘un­set­tling and bril­liant’, says Kate Saun­ders. A mem­oir moves Natasha Lehrer

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - RE­VIEWED BY KATE SAUN­DERS


Jonathan Cape. £18.99

FOR A writer whose t a r gets a r e usu­ally crys­tal-clear from the start, this novel opens in be­wil­der­ing fashion. Ja­cob­son drops the reader straight i nto a s t r a nge a nd un­easy new world — some­where in an in­de­ter­mi­nate fu­ture, but this is not your run-of-the-mill dystopia. The past has been out­lawed — to such an ex­tent that no one is per­mit­ted to own an­tiques. His­tory books and diaries are for­bid­den. The only entertainment comes from the “Util­ity Con­sole”, which sup­plies the na­tion with “sooth­ing mu­sic and calm­ing news”.

Lit­tle by lit­tle, how­ever, the pic­ture that emerges has a dread­ful fa­mil­iar­ity. This is a world reel­ing from the af­ter­shock of a cer­tain catas­tro­phe, only spo­ken of as “WHAT HAP­PENED, IF IT HAP­PENED”.

Every­one has a Jewish-sound­ing sur­name (Ja­cob­son has huge fun giv­ing his gen­tiles mon­ick­ers like “Gutkind” and “Nuss­baum”). Place names are also rein­vented; the set­ting is Port Reuben but you know it’s Corn­wall be­cause one char­ac­ter has a lovely view from his win­dow of “St Mordechai’s Mount”.

Kev­ern Cohen doesn’t know where he came from, or how he ar­rived here — though he re­mem­bers his fa­ther’s re­luc­tance to say any word (es­pe­cially one) begin­ning with the let­ter “J”— at least with­out draw­ing a cou­ple of fin­gers across his lips. Ailinn Solomons was adopted and knows noth­ing about her real parent­age. Their neigh­bours seem to think they be­long to­gether, but why?

You won’t see the word “Jew” any­where but that’s the great un­spo­ken here — the sen­tence “WHAT HAP­PENED, IF IT HAP­PENED” peals through the nar­ra­tive like a great bell. Ja­cob­son is imag­in­ing an en­tire so­ci­ety in the grip of a col­lec­tive de­nial, heav­ily dis­guised as apol­ogy. “Af­ter the fall­ing-out, the say­ing sorry. That was the way. They had all been taught it at school. Al­ways say sorry.” But putting your fin­gers in your ears and shout­ing “sorry” is only another way of drown­ing mem­ory.

The catas­tro­phe here is a mod­ern one; it be­gan with “Twit­ter­nacht” —

= this is Ja­cob­son, so of course he can’t re­sist a side­swipe at this very tire­some con­tem­po­rary phe­nom­e­non: “As a lit­tle girl, [Ailinn had] read in comics about a time when peo­ple wrote to each other by phone but wrote such hor­rid things that the prac­tice had to be dis­cour­aged.”

Typ­i­cally, he’s scabrously funny, but he’s not jok­ing; one nasty voice in the Twit­ter­sphere could eas­ily whip the tweet­ing peas­antry into another Holo- caust, an­ti­semitism (or some­thing so re­sem­bling it as to be iden­ti­cal) still be­ing the go-to prej­u­dice of the very stupid (he puts it bet­ter —- I agreed with ev­ery word).

Jok­ing apart, this novel dis­turbs be­cause it is set in a fu­ture that has recog­nis­able roots in the present. While the lovers won­der why they have been pushed into each other’s arms, the na­tion’s pen­i­tence is wear­ing thin.

There has been a “break­down of re­spect”. Mur­ders are com­mon­place and women ex­pect to be beaten up by their men­folk (on their first date, Kev­ern woos Ailinn by gen­tly kiss­ing the purple bruise on her cheek).

The peo­ple are get­ting sick of liv­ing in a per­ma­nent state of self-cen­sor­ship. You can’t stop mem­ory; there’s a chill­ing mo­ment when Kev­ern searches for his ori­gins. A help­ful taxi driver takes him to a kind of Bishop’s Av­enue, say­ing this is where the Co­hens came from — not Kev­ern’s fam­ily, but “the real Co­hens”.

It’s tempt­ing to cast = J as the third part of a Ja­cob­son Jewish tril­ogy, look­ing at his roots from ev­ery an­gle; first there was Kalooki Nights (the past and an­ti­semitism), then there was the Man Booker-win­ning The Fin­kler Ques­tion, (the present and philosemitism, the other side of the same coin). And now here’s = J, the pos­si­ble fu­ture.

But this is too sim­plis­tic; all three nov­els are bril­liant enough to stand alone, and = J isafire­workdis­playof ver­bal­in­ven­tion, as en­ter­tain­ing as it is un­set­tling.

Kate Saun­ders is a writer and critic


Howard Ja­cob­son and his wife Jenny cel­e­brate his win­ning the 2010 Man Booker Prize. J is longlisted for 2014

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