Malamud, Bernard. “The Fixer”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.
Bernard Malamud’s historical novel, “The Fixer” is set in Tsarist Russia and is the story of Yakov Bok as he struggles in a hateful atmosphere but this could very well be the story of anyone who is the victim of a miscarriage of justice and the prejudice of a mob. Bok is beset by being a stranger in a community and the victim of prejudice that is irrational and due to anti-Semitic hysteria when a young boy is found murdered. Bok is charged with “ritual murder” simply because he is Jewish and his story is terrifying as historical fiction is tied to a world where one is blamed because of his religion.
In the years before the first World War, we meet Bok, a handyman (the fixer) in the rural Ukraine. He wants a better life—he has been unlucky and he cannot make ends meet financially. His wife has left him and because he is a Jew, he feels he suffers from the greatest of injustices.
This is a fictionalized account of one of the most notorious incidents of anti-Semitism—the arrest and trial of Mendel Beilis in Kiev before the Russian revolution. Beilis was accused of murdering a Christian boy even though all of the evidence pointed to the boy’s mother as the murderer. Beilis was held in prison from 1911-1913 when he was tried and exonerated.
Here we have Yakov Bok, the fixer, who we first meet when his wife leaves him because he has abandoned traditional Judaism for the Spinozan influence of “free thinking”. He leaves his village where his wife cheated on him and finds his way to Kiev. As he walked down the street one day, he sees a man collapsed and tries to help him even though the man wears a pin which was the symbol of a vicious and infamous anti-Semitic organization. It turns out that the man, a local merchant, was just drunk. He offers Bok a job managing his brickyard and does not realize that Bok is Jewish. Bok, knowing better, accepts the job and goes to work using an assumed name—Yakov Ivanovitch Dologushev and moves into an apartment in an area where Jews are forbidden to live.
Once at work, he meets the owner’s daughter who makes sexual advances towards him which he declines. He also has problems with some of the local youth who enter the brickyard and with other employees who he lets know not to steal brick. What seemed at the time to be petty disagreements will have disastrous results when a local young boy is found murdered and drained of blood. The authorities discovered that Bok is Jewish and accused him of the crime and claim that it was a ritual murder so that the blood could be used for the Passover seder. (It is important to note that the murder of Christian children and the use of their blood by Jews has been taken to mean that Jews have an eternal enmity with Christians and that blood that is shed is a repetition of the martyrdom of their god).
The victim here happened to be one of the boys that Bok has earlier chased out of the yard and now the owner’s daughter and other employees come forward to give false testimony against him. Many tried to get Bok to confess and used brutality to that end. What motivated them to do so was the fact that the evidence they had was inadequate and that they were determined to keep the case from going to trial. Bok felt that if he could get into a courtroom, he would have the chance to clear his name and well as the names of all Jews regarding blood libel. The battle goes on for years and Bok grows into heroic dimensions. Here is a simple, non-political, non-believer, transformed as we read into a powerful symbol of resistance to anti-Semitism, injustice, tyranny and hatred. It seems as if God has punished him for all of humanity and he holds his own using his own strength and nobility which he has derived and it is his universality and his power that makes him determined to prove his innocence.
Malamud was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for “The Fixer” as he should have. What I think makes the story here so interesting is that Yakov Bok struggles as much with himself as he does with the injustices he faces from the state as well as with the ignorance of Kiev and the evil of local officials who are anxious to put him in prison even while they know he has no guilt or relationship to the crime. Born a Jew, Bok now searches for the god of the Jews who he has forsaken. He is unable to comprehend a god who would allow his people to be victimized with no mercy. His struggle is as much a moral and philosophical struggle as it is legalistic and this is where Malamud’s importance lies. The book is peppered with occasional humor but by and large it is a human tragedy. While Bok has abandoned traditional Judaism, he never forgets his roots and even when his former wife’s father bribes the state to see Bok in prison, the two men debate theology. This debate is actually the centerpiece of the novel—is it Bok that abandoned God or is it God that abandoned Bok? The politico-historical context and the cynical manipulation of anti-Semitic sentiment in Russia are presented by Bok’s lawyer but we realize that this is a study of morality and justice and not so much about politics.
Bok always remains compassionate for others—he keeps a good thought about his unfaithful wife, his fellow prisoner and even for his jailers who occasionally show him some compassion. His outlook and his lucidity fluctuate in his worst moments of despair and lack of physical strength and the narrative does the same. In this way, Malamud puts the reader into Bok’s cell and he feels and shares the outrage and hopelessness. When Bok is confused, Malamud gives us confused prose. Bok may not be a hero but he is heroic.
Malamud inspires with his prose and he gives us a man, in prison in terrible conditions, in virtually concentration camp scenarios… a man, accused of a crime he did not commit but due to anti-Semitism in Russia during the early 1900’s or thereabouts, is incapable of reacting. We get the full impact and feel of Bok’s isolation, desolation and frustration; a man waiting for an indictment yet not knowing whether he would be accused of the terrible crime that he is suspected of having committed. We go through periods of hope and then those hopes are dashed. We feel Bok’s feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness and we struggle like Bok does. Malamud wrote this in plain, ordinary, utilitarian prose, using words that any junior high school would understand and in doing so, he gives us a classic and universal novel. For those who are serious thinkers, there is a lot to think about here. We come very close to Bok’s feelings of hopelessness in prison, we feel the horror and hatred fostered by anti-Semitism and we come to a new understanding of the human condition and its obscurity as an individual in a world turned against one man.
- Posted in: Judaica