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