A comic novelist takes on the Holocaust

April 29, 2007|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

Kalooki Nights

By Howard Jacobson

Simon & Schuster / 464 pages / $26

The war in Iraq has made many of us painfully aware of the power religion has to wound as well as heal. The internecine religious civil war in Iraq exemplifies just how awry religion can go from its true purpose. The very beliefs that are meant to make us more humane can often have the opposite effect, spurring people to rage, violence, murder.

British writer Howard Jacobson journeys into this complex terrain of religious identity in his latest novel, Kalooki Nights. His protagonist, Max Glickman, is a secular Jew growing up in Manchester, England, in the 1950s when World War II and the Holocaust were fresh wounds in the Jewish community. Max's best friends are Manny, an Orthodox Jew, and Errol, an adolescent hedonist right out of a Philip Roth novel.

Max - who later makes his career as a cartoonist - is a budding writer intent on recording his experiences. While Errol is showing Max the sexual ropes, Manny is leading him down a wholly different path to understanding what being a Jew is all about. With Manny, Max begins a history of Jewish life, Five Thousand Years of Bitterness, which Max finishes years later.

Max's parents are Jews through ethnicity, not through faith. His father, a former boxer (given to nosebleeds), continues to fight in verbal jousts with his family. An atheist who believes God abandoned the Jews, he's the prototypical "New York Jew" in Britain: communist, unionist, bagel-eating, shul-avoiding. Max's glamorous mother is an inveterate card player, spending hours with her friends playing the card game kalooki in an effort to avoid her husband's sturm und drang. Everything Max learns about being a Jew he learns in opposition to this secularist upbringing. His mentor on the road to awareness of his own Jewishness and what it means to be a Jew is Manny.

It is Manny who opens the Pandora's Box of the Holocaust for Max. Introverted, withdrawn and increasingly obsessive, Manny has interpolated the Holocaust into every fiber of his being, drawn to every aspect of Holocaust history like a moth to a flame. He relives the genocide through his obsessiveness, his rage builds explosively and it leads him to commit a heinous crime - killing his parents as if they were in one of the camps.

When Manny is released from prison years later, it is the now-renowned Max who is hired to do a TV treatment of his old friend's story. Compelled by the horrifying and inexplicable nature of Manny's crime, Max delves deeper into the mystery, uncovering his own past as he searches out Manny's.

The novel is, most definitively, an attempt to delineate and explicate the modern Judaic tradition as experienced by religious and secular Jews. This bittersweet coming-of-age and coming-of-aging tale could be subtitled: "What the Holocaust means to me." As Jacobson's narrative reveals, the Holocaust is the Rosetta Stone of modern Judaism - a harrowing legacy.

Jacobson is best known as a humorist, and has won awards for his humorous novels like Peeping Tom and The Making of Henry in Britain. Kalooki Nights is harshly funny in places - deeply, darkly comedic. The novel is also a thriller, a diatribe, an intellectual exercise. (Jacobson writes a weekly column for The Independent newspaper on the dumbing-down of Britain.) Jacobson's style is strident and mannered at the same time: an odd admixture of Philip Roth and George Eliot, drawing-room romantic drama wedded to scatological humor.

The strength of Kalooki Nights lies in the way in which Jacobson takes on the Holocaust and what it means to those, like Manny, who weren't its victims, but who internalized the legacy of destruction to the point of madness.

Jacobson has always been a controversial writer and Kalooki Nights may be his most controversial book yet. Not all his books have been published in the U.S., possibly because his recurrent themes interlacing Judaism, the Holocaust and sexual intensity have seemed too extreme for an American audience. But in Britain, Jacobson is both well-respected (Kalooki Nights was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and Jacobson has already won the Wodehouse Award) and a veritable cheerleader for the Jewish experience. He has publicly taken such heavyweights as Harold Pinter to task for not writing or speaking about their Judaism, reducing themselves to closet cases.

In a brilliant and unrelenting column for The Independent when David Irving was sentenced for Holocaust denial last year, Jacobson wrote, "Deniers of the Holocaust are defamers of its victims. They accelerate the cruel process of forgetting, murdering a second time those already murdered. In the name of the living and the dead, may they rot in prison, and rot in hell thereafter."

At the same time, Jacobson has Max say, "It's hard to get people to laugh at the Holocaust."

Contradictory? Perhaps, perhaps not. Rather both statements seem of a piece: Jacobson is focused on not forgetting.

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