Offred, in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale, passes the execution Wall one day and sees dangling corpses marked with the letter ‘J’ in red: ‘It doesn’t mean Jewish, those would be yellow stars […] So the J isn’t for Jew.’
Howard Jacobson has now built an entire fictional world on this word beginning with either a ‘J’, or a ‘J’ cancelled with a double stroke, and which is literally unsayable. His own dystopia – a theocratic mid-21st century British surveillance state – has suppressed unofficial histories of ‘WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED’. This event (usually capitalised) was a gradual, deliberate, violent but deniable pogrom of Jews, their name now as ineffable as God’s.
They are understood never to have existed: ‘Jew’ and its derivatives nowhere appear. Confusions of anti-Israel and anti-semitic feeling had made society unworkable. So the root of the problem had to go: society reasserted a forcible, though notional, Christianity. Denial of Jews’ existence meant denial of what happened to them in the 20th century, and also of atrocities they themselves committed by way of paranoid self-protection. Thus neo-Christian society, itself paranoid, finally solves the problem of historic guilt over complicity in apocalyptic evil. It didn’t happen, any of it. Everyone’s names are changed by decree. The Jews are cancelled, twice.
But there’s a problem. Society’s myth of Christianised neo-liberalism needs to be perpetuated by a model of the good life. In this model society, everyone constantly apologises, and is nice all the time. It doesn’t work. Marriages sour. Sex is casual and greedy. Murders are unsolvable. The social experiment is out of control.
The powers that be decide these low grade hostilities can’t continue. Society must be re-calibrated. People need a group scapegoated as Other to define themselves against, thereby channelling their angers and hatreds in an act of rebalancing. Who are the world’s scapegoats par excellence? The now extinct Jews.
Obliquely, Jacobson introduces us to two Jewish survivors, Ailinn Solomons and Kevern Cohen. These are loners, geographically isolated, beneath notice by all but the most sensitive surveillance. Their meeting has been eugenically arranged, and they fall in love. The state wants a baby. If it gets one, this group may breed again. That’s socially desirable: they can reconstitute themselves as definitive, unifying hate objects. Kevern can’t, ultimately, be instrumental in this, once the truth is out. He is a defeated man, and ends his life. But that’s after he has innocently impregnated Ailinn. This is all the government needs: Jewish identity is matrilineal.
‘What price equilibrium?’ is the novel’s underlying question. As the State of Israel prosecutes costly action against Hamas in Gaza, waves of anti-Israel and/or downright anti-semitic protest break far inshore in the liberal democracies. Jacobson has presciently addressed these developments. His foresight is leavened with his accustomed dry wit. He deploys a few minor incidental characters who are pantomimic. He achieves tragicomedy. There are some accomplished jokes. Yet one daren’t laugh.