by Sybil Kaplan
J by Howard Jacobson, Hogarth (in the UK), Penguin/Random House, $25 hardcover, October 2014
Howard Jacobson, 72 years old, born in Manchester, England, has written 12 books of fiction, best known as comic novels or humor and Jewishness, and five books of non fiction. Currently, he is a columnist for the Independent newspaper.
Until the appearance of J, his 13th novel, he had remained rather obscure in the United States. Since its publication, J has been compared to 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 and Clockwork Orange.
Reading J is very strange and disturbing. The book is set in the early 21st century but in a future that is undesirable and frightening because of the occurrence of something like a second Holocaust called “What happened, If it happened,” which dominates the lives of the people and occurred some years ago.
The village of Port Rubin is an island of several thousand people, on the sea, but unattached to any other shore, where all the inhabitants have Jewish last names. The letter “J” is forbidden in the society, and the word Jewish is never mentioned; even the letter “J” has two horizontal lines drawn through the middle.
In a James Kidd review (Aug. 7, 2014) reprinted in the Independent of the United Kingdom (Jan. 7, 2015), Kidd writes, “Port Rubin’s inhabitants are alienated from their past, divorced from their cultural identity and complacent in their relationship with the present. Jacobson constructs an anti-Semitic society convinced that anti-Semitism has been utterly redacted,” i.e., obscured or removed.
In Port Rubin lives Kevern Cohen, 40 years old, a native of the village with no family, a loner, now a wood carver and teacher of a class at the Benign Visual Arts School. His most prominent characteristic is being chronically apprehensive. He recalls that his father “drew two fingers across his lips when he said a word starting with a ‘J.’”
Into his life comes 25-year-old Ailinn Solomons, orphaned at an early age, raised in a convent then adopted, now an artist who makes paper flowers. She has been brought to Port Rubin by a woman named Ez, whom she met in a book group up north where she lived before. A matchmaker at a country fair pairs the two of them.
Kevern and Ailinn fall in love, but it seems to be part of some strange scheme.
Just as Kevern finds information about his past, further along in the book and the relationship, Ailinn finds letters written by her grandmother who had married a Christian and who rebuked her parents’ anxieties about anti-Semitism and left her baby at an orphanage with nuns. The baby grew to adulthood in the convent, became pregnant, left the baby girl and a packet of letters with it, not to be read before the girl’s 25th birthday.
There is also a subplot of several people having been murdered and a police inspector with strange investigative techniques; an art professor who monitors Kevern and spies on his students; and a woman who wants to restore society.
At various points throughout the novel, there seem to be predictions of a future Holocaust that will take place in England, although the tone of the people in Port Rubin seems to be one of predominant passivity in a passive world.
On the one hand, I was very much motivated to read the whole novel and find out what happens; on the other hand, I felt like I was reading some strange mystery and I might never find the answers because the clues are so uncertain. Is the book a satire? Is it a parable? I don’t know.
The experience of reading Jacobson is significant, given his reputation, but one has to be prepared for a very different exposure.