“The Finkler Question” by Howard Jacobson (2010) – 307 pages
“The Finkler Question” has the trappings of a comic novel, but it really is a grim political diatribe. There are a lot of puns (“crying Wolfowitz”). There are some good lines.
- “He’s always been in denial,” Josephine said. “He’s in denial that he’s a bastard.”
One of the jokes of this Booker prize-winning novel is that one of the main characters is named Samuel Finkler, and soon into the novel the word “Finkler” is used interchangeably with the word “Jewish”, thus “The Finkler Question”. Finkler is a humorous name, and according to the main protagonist it ‘takes away the stigma’, ‘sucks out the toxins’.
The novel centers on Jewish identity in England with the various characters being Jewish in their own way. The main protagonist Treslove is not a Jew but very much wants to become one. Despite his Jewish friend’s words “you can’t be us”, Treslove studies Yiddish, keeps a kosher diet, and moves in with a Jewish woman named Hephzibah.
The main issue in ‘The Finkler Question’ is a political dispute between two camps. In one camp are those Jewish people who believe that no matter what Israel does to the Palestinians and other Arabs, Israel is always right. In the other camp are those Jewish people who don’t think so and question some of the actions Israel has taken. Howard Jacobson is clearly in the ‘Israel is always right’ camp. In “The Finkler Question’, Jacobson has the other camp organizing a group called ASHamed Jews. He even goes so far as to call those Jewish people who disagree with him anti-Semitic. It was at that point that any sense of fun or comedy in the novel completely deflated for me just like a balloon that has been pricked with a needle. ‘The Finkler Question’ at that point became a grim un-funny tirade with a few jokes tossed in to somewhat disguise the venom. Throughout the novel Jacobson stacks the deck so that his ‘Israel is always right’ camp is shown in the most positive light and the questioning Jewish people are shown in the worst possible light. Jacobson uses the story and his stock characters to relentlessly pursue his political goal, and the result is a lame novel.
I am not Jewish. I have read and enjoyed many novels by Jewish writers. As a young child, I was completely devoted to Mad magazine which had and has mostly Jewish writers. “The Finkler Question” would not make the ‘Top One Hundred’ list of my favorite novels by Jewish writers. If you are looking for a great novel written by a Jewish writer, read “Call It Sleep” by Henry Roth which is one of the finest novels of the twentieth century. Read any work by Cynthia Ozick who is one of the best living fiction writers. Read “Enemies, A Love Story” by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Read Joseph Heller, Nathanial West, and Anita Brookner. Read A.B. Yehoshua and Alberto Moravia. There are a lot of wonderful alternatives. Italo Svevo, E. L. Doctorow, Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, David Grossman, Irene Nemirovsky, Mordecai Richler, Evgenia Citkowitz, Hans Keilson…
Of course, Howard Jacobson might claim some of these Jewish writers are anti-Semitic, but that is his problem.