A confusion of identities in a confession that might be a fantasy or a debate

March 28, 1993|By Jack Stephens

OPERATION SHYLOCK: A CONFESSION.

Philip Roth.

Simon & Schuster.

398 pages. $23. Here it is, Opus 20 by the author of "Patrimony" (supposedly a memoir), "The Facts" (ostensibly an autobiography) and a passel of semiautobiographical novels, such as "Deceptions," which defy the reader to call them fiction. Here is yet another book straddling the line, refusing to tell its readers quite how it wants to be read. Is it, as the subtitle alleges, "A Confession," Philip Roth's honest recounting of some personal responsibility? Or is it the invention, the novel, its publisher insists it is?

In "Operation Shylock," the narrator, who claims to be Philip Roth, claims to encounter his "Moshe Pipik" -- his "Moses Bellybutton." Whatever it's called, it's his double, the Hyde within whose presence the narrator's Jekyll can reflect on the troubled multiplicity of the author's identity as a second-generation American Jew and a human being at large.

But how are readers to begin investing trust in a book that bristles with authorial disclaimers? "I have had to alter a number of facts," it begins. "And it ends: "This confession is false." How, then, are we to take its author as more than grandiloquent, self-absorbed gamesman, especially when Mr. Roth's Roth character delights: "To think that he was pretending at his end of the line to be me, and I was pretending at my end not to be me gave me a terrific, unforeseen, Mardi Gras kind of kick"? Well, we're glad someone else is having fun.

One big nail in the coffin as far as trustworthiness is concerned is the, uh, fact that the narrator is recovering from an episode of insanity precipitated by the prescription drug Halcion. From the onset, it must remain unclear whether any of Mr. Roth's Roths have full clarity of mind.

What follows is that Mr. Roth's Roth's Roth (the impostor) has proposed to Polish leader Lech Walesa a new diaspora in which the impostor, acting as a kind of anti-Moses, will lead the Jews out of what he calls today's corruptly Zionistic and culturally self-destructive Israel. Where to? Back into the safety of the melting pot, back to Poland and Germany and the world at large, where ethnic survival can be assured in much the same way that a long-term investment is protected by the spread of wealth in a good mutual fund. That's how Judaism has survived all these centuries, Mr. Roth argues in so many ways.

Getting wind of his impostor's antics, Mr. Roth's Roth (the narrator) flies to Jerusalem under the pretense of attending the trial of John Demjanjuk (allegedly "Ivan the Terrible" of the Treblinka death camp), but really as much to face the man who has been putting words in his mouth. Providing the mirrored backdrop for the narrator's identity crisis, the trial-beneath-the-trial -- of verbal testimony vs. appearance -- speaks to Roth of the duplicitous nature of man, since the sweet, doddering Christian he sees on the stand hardly seems the same man who could skewer women and children.

On his pilgrimage through the harsh landscape and courtscape of Jerusalem and environs, Roth encounters various characters -- Apter, a cousin and Holocaust victim; novelist/friend Aharon Appelfeld; the impostor himself; the impostor's woman friend, whom the narrator can't help seducing; a Mossad agent named Smilesburger who enlists him in some vague Israeli intelligence operation, and "Zee," an old college roommate who has gone from being an open-minded man of the world to a repatriated and angry Palestinian.

Each encounter springboards Roth into the real action of the book: the articulate, stagy, sometimes soporific, sometimes riveting debates and diatribes pro and con concerning those issues that might curdle the air between a Jew and a Christian, or a Jew and an Arab, and, most important, a smart, independent, worldly Jew and his own cultural heritage.

What is "Operation Shylock"? It's supposed to be an intelligence operation in which Mr. Roth's Roth insists the author was an operative. We'll never know. The scamp! But Shylock is also that traditional ethnic caricature that has snapped at the heels of Jews since before Shakespeare's Venetian moneylender first entered, stage left.

Mr. Roth, in fact, perverts the image to his own use, suggesting that Israel itself might be Shylock's biggest, meanest personification. A "pound of flesh," an aging war criminal, a few million hectares of Jordanian desert . . . what's the difference, really? Roth worries that Israel's insatiable appetite for reparation could lead, as it did for Shylock, to the final stripping away of

everything of importance to the Jewish cultural identity. In Israel, he tells us, "I would witness the cynical corruption of every Jewish value cherished by every decent Diaspora Jew."

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