J by Howard Jacobson

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jHoward Jacobson’s latest novel J, tells the story of two lovers Ailinn and Kevern, each unsure of their respective origins, who are thrown together by circumstance in a dystopic future Britain. Before I proceed I think it is only fair that I include a spoiler alert as it is very difficult to discuss this novel in a meaningful way without disclosing aspects of the plot which only become apparent as the story proceeds.

While I usually don’t ascribe to the notion of spoiler warnings feeling a plot should stand on its own two feet regardless of a readers prior knowledge of its outline, Jacobson has taken such care in ensuring the revelations occur gradually and has done so with such evident skill I’d feel a bad sport for ruining this experience for potential readers.

The dystopia presented in J, is of a particularly British flavour, an event of some magnitude has taken place, and is referred to as “What Happened If It Happened”. A kind of creepy super polite fascism is enforced throughout the land, performed through congenial evasion and denial.

Certain cultural artefacts are, if not outright banned, then certainly discouraged from being owned by a collective disapproval reinforced by Ofnow, the government body responsible for maintaining the collective amnesia. Ofnow are responsible for Operation Ishmael the initiative responsible for the cultural coyness.

Ofnow’s ideology is expressed through asinine injunctions such as, “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie, The Over Examined Life Is Not Worth Living”, and “ Yesterday Is A Lesson We Can Learn Only By Looking To Tomorrow”.

Obtaining information about “What Happened If It Happened” is discouraged through tactful deferment; “Buildings are not barred to you. Doors are not closed in your face. ‘Yes, of course’ will be the polite rejoinder to any request you make to inspect certificates of birth or death, or voter lists, or even newspapers dating too far back. But the forms you fill in are never read by anyone. Calls are not returned, applications are lost, the person you were talking to in the morning won’t be there in the afternoon.”

The effects of this collective repression has a deleterious effect on the general population who exhibit increased aggression and seem to be buckling under the strain of their lie. Domestic violence is on the increase and people seem restless, dissatisfied and ready to tear each other apart.

J is an interesting novel as it is a piece of genre fiction written by a writer who, by his own admission, turns his nose up at genre writing. Unsurprisingly it features some of the classic problems of the literary writer dabbling in genre writing.

The biggest of these problems are that he gives precedence to literary considerations, subjugating his plot to allegorical ends, rather than building a thoroughly convincing dystopic world. Jacobson’s dystopia makes no sense economically or socially. Also the plot contains logical problems.

So here’s the spoiler. “What Happened If It Happened ” turns out to have been a pogrom where the Jewish population were set upon by the general populace. Kevern and Ailinn are of interest to the government who wishes to re-establish a Jewish population through a breeding program. The reasons for this are far from benevolent.

The logic behind reintroducing a Jewish population lies in a government sociologist’s theory that society needs a scapegoat population to vent its anger on and stop it from tearing itself apart. The reason that this population needs to be specifically Semitic are given as follows:

You have to see a version of yourself, A reflection you cannot bear to see. An echo you cannot bear to hear. In other words, you must have chewed on the same bone of moral philosophy, subscribed to a similar spirituality and even, at some point in the not too distant past, have worshipped at the same shrines. It was difference where there was so much that was similar that accounted for the unique antipathy of which they were in search. And only one people with one set of prints fit that bill.

The above quote is a good observation of how sectarian hate operates, but ignores the specific history of British sectarianism, where the primary antagonism has been between Protestant and Catholic Christians, with anti-Jewish sentiment being little more than a grotesque sideshow.

It might seem like I am nit-picking but for me this was a major flaw, and showed a lack of historical understanding, again revealing the author’s willingness to steamroller over inconvenient realities in order to make a point.

The author’s take on Middle Eastern politics are also a little simplistic to say the least, one suspects a certain element of intentional provocation.

I am also wary of fictionalised Holocaust’s, and worry that an over-accumulation of them create a cultural context where the real historical tragedy is perhaps in danger of being trivialised.

Despite the above reservations I enjoyed reading J, The novel’s eventual revelation is expertly handled and creeps up on you gradually enveloping you in the novel’s genuinely unnerving landscape.

J is a prickly and problematic book which is no doubt the author’s intention, and one admires him for his willingness to step on toes, and for this alone he should be applauded. It is an atmospheric novel filled with jet black humour, and is best enjoyed on its own terms rather than being taken too seriously.

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

ISBN 88-452-6622-2

The Prague Cemetery is Academic and writer Umberto Ecos’ Sixth Novel. It includes his usual themes of intertextuality, history, unreliable narrators and complex grandiose plots filled with conspiracies. The protagonists, a counterfeiting self-serving secret service agent Simonini and a self-righteous hypocritical priest Abbe Piccolo, are suffering from a form of amnesia. They engage in a series of communications via a diary in order to reconstruct their respective pasts so that they and the reader may ascertain whether or not they are indeed the one person.

This method works well and we the reader are privy to series of recollections which span Europe from 1830 to 1898 as the narrators stumble through seminal moments of history such as the unification of Italy, the Paris commune and the Dreyfus affair to name but a few. Factual events and real historical figures are woven into a cohesive fictional narrative which is executed with a deceptive ease showcasing the authors vast knowledge of history.

Throughout the novel Eco skilfully uses this device to playfully merge the respectable literary tradition of the doppelganger and actual historical events with the sensational pot boiler tropes of multiple personality disorder and lurid conspiracies. This gives us a text which easily traverses between high literature and populist writing revealing the distance between both destinations may not be as far as we imagine.

Ever present throughout the tale is the ugly spectre of anti-Semitism which is rightly acknowledged as a persistent and recurring blot on the pages of history. Indeed our narrator or narrators are themselves proponents of Europes shamefully mainstream anti-Semitic neuroses. Eco succeeds in showing us that far from being a unique and exceptionally German endeavour the ideologies which led to the Holocaust were widely prevalent in Europe.

This is not the only comfortable assumption Eco deflates.  A major plot point revolves around the counterfeiter Simoninis’ construction of the fictitious protocols of the Elders of Zion the absurdly paranoid text which anti-Semites the world over still reference today to justify their hateful ideologies. Eco skilfully shows us how this text was not anomalous but drew on existing literature and ideas which circulated throughout Europe at the time and were propagated by so called respectable writers. Here we see Eco illustrate the dangers of fiction and how easily it blends with reality. This is a refreshing departure from the usual unquestioned conceit that all literature is inherently positive, uplifting and improving.

In my favourite part of the book the counterfeiter Simonini sketches out a framework for a universal conspiracy theory which contains the elements of an archetypical conspiracy plot where one is free to substitute the conspirators to suit one’s own prejudices. This framework is evident throughout all conspiracy theories and hasn’t much changed since the construction of the protocols. Of course within our modern information rich society surely people couldn’t be duped again? Sadly a quick perusal of the internet reveals the continued prevalence of such theories on various conspiracy websites.

More significantly its outline is apparent in popular fiction such as the Da Vinci code a book which most likely against it authors intentions is taken as fact by many of its more credulous readers as evidenced by the guided tours of sites from the novel and fan websites which breathlessly assert the factuality of Browns fanciful tapestry of conspiracies. In his novel Eco succeeds in showing us how such credulousness has dangerous precedent and may be exploited by the more cynical. The Prague Cemetery is a novel which may be enjoyed as an adventurous romp or may be understood by the more subtle reader as a lesson on the dangers of fiction.