Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Read: The Yiddish Policeman's Union (Part II)

So, I still haven't got around to reading Neuromancer. I meant to, but I fell asleep instead. I can give you all the solution to the chess puzzle from The Yiddish Policeman's Union that I know that you've all been losing sleep over. If you're the kinda guy that doesn't like his novel ruined by knowing the outcome of the central chess puzzle motif, then you should walk away now and go sit down somewhere and read this book.

The chess puzzle is set up on a cheap board in the room of a murdered Jew who went by the name of Emmanuel Lasker (a name you might be a little bit familiar with), who happens to live in the same apartment block as Detective Meyer Landsman, an over-the-hill homicide detective with a broken marriage with his boss, an on-again-off-again relationship with a cheap bottle of vodka and no sense for the middle game. The whole thing takes place in the District of Sitka, a Jewish enclave in Alaska about to revert to the US in this alternative history in which the state of Israel collapsed in 1948.

Back in this reality for a moment, the puzzle was composed by Victor Nabokov of Lolita fame (Lolita is in my shelf partly read at the moment, having given me the heebie-jeebies on the first attempt), and it had deep meaning for him, as it does for "Emmanuel Lasker". The way for white to move and mate in two is to move his bishop to c2, putting black into the inenviable chess position of "zugzwang", in which any possible move works out badly for him, and allowing white to mate next move no matter his decision. It is a very, very attractive puzzle in it's own right, and I think Nabokov would be gratified that someone else found it as useful a motif as he did.

This "zugzwang" is very appropriate, not just for the yid calling himself Emmanuel Lasker in room 208, and for all the displaced Jews of Sitka, but also for an anglo-saxon attempting a review. As you may have gathered by this point, this is the kind of book that in this sensitive age could only have been written by a Jew, as it portrays Jews not only as the good guys, but as the bad guys too, which is just not cricket for a non-Jew in the same way that it would be ill-advised for an anglo-saxon to call an African American a nigger, but appears to be ok if it comes from the horse's mouth. Thus, I'll refrain from too much comment except to say that the subject of race is not treated in the conventional manner.

For all that, though, it's a very attractive book. The dialogue is harsh and crisp and full of bitter resentment and double meanings, all the witty repartee of noir with all the mystery of the best SF, slowly releasing details about a world like, but unlike, our own. Everyone in the book is a smart-talking bad-ass, and all the conversations are full of things not said and things avoided, things the characters understand but the reader is left to wonder about. A quick sample from random from a book full of exciting little conversations, written in a frenetic, jumpy style, just like they would occur, not as if they're just dead words on a page:
"Never again I don't touch that stuff, Detectives, and even if I do, believe me, I don't go near Frank. I am crazy, but I am not lunatic."
Landsman feels the bump and the skid as the tires lock. They have just hit something.
"Why not?" Berko says, kindly and wise. "Why does selling smack to Frank make you not just a criminal but a lunatic, Mr. Shitnovitzer?"
There is a small, decisive click, a bit hollow, like false teeth clapping together. Velvel tips over his king.
"I resign" says Velvel. He takes off his glasses, slips them into his pocket and stands up. He forgot an appointment. He's late for work. His mother is calling him on the ultrasonic frequency reserved by the government for Jewish mothers in the event of lunch.
"Sit down," Berko says without turning around. The kid sits down.
The mystery unfolds, like mystery stories always do, with international plots that go right to the top, old crimes brought to the surface, heavies out to whack the good guys, painted cows and one rather unusual femme-fatale. All in all it's a rollicking good ride, and well worth the $8 I spent for it, and has put a bunch of other books on my reading list, namely the other works of this young up-and-comer Michael Chabon, with the possibility of extending the list to every book that's ever won the Hugo Award (as this one has) if the internet ever decides to pay me to give up my day job and read full-time.

Page 123:
Zimbalist struggled for the next hour to understand that move, and the strength to resist confiding to a ten-year-old whose universe was bounded by the study house, the shul, and the door to his mother's kitchen, the sorrow and dark rapture of Zimbalist's love for the dying widow, how some secret thirst of his own was quenched every time he dribbled cool water through her peelng lips.
Despite what these quotes might indicate, the book is not all about chess, chess is just regularly used as a metaphor because chess naturally lends itself to that sort of thing (probably a post for another time, that), and sometimes whole pages go by without a single mention of the game at all. It's a genuine blend of the different genres that it's trying to be a part of, and for money it's hit that difficult nail on the head. So if that sounds like your sort of thing, I have a nice hardcover copy I'm willing to lend you, as I need to rearrange my read bookshelves so that I can fit some more stuff on them anyway.

Reading List Progress:

Number of Books read: 6
Australian dividend: 1.045
Science Fiction dividend: 2.5
Fantasy dividend: 2
Biography dividend: 1
Mystery dividend: .5
Next Up: William Gibson, Neuromancer (Still), or something else that's partly read at the moment.

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