Reading the Man Booker Prize 2014: “J” by Howard Jacobson

Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North has won this year’s Man Booker Prize! I’m halfway through it, and it’s good, so we all have my review to look forward to. But let’s wrap up the rest of the shortlisted novels first.

Howard Jacobson, winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question, has veered from his usual comedic writing to dedicate himself to the question of what the world might look like after a second Holocaust. J is a grim novel with very little relief. It’s intelligent and important, but it will also suck every last bit of joy out of you.

J by Howard Jacobson

Kevern and Ailinn are introduced to each other at a fête in their remote fishing village. They fall in love and move in together, but they’re both wary of too much involvement while battling their respective demons. Ailinn is an adopted child with no family connections, while Kevern remembers only the sad, desperate and constantly fearful side of his parents. Both feel watched and followed. It soon turns out they are indeed being watched, and for reasons neither of them could have imagined.

The world they inhabit exists in the aftermath of an unspeakable catastrophe that is never fully acknowledged and only briefly glimpsed by the reader through fragments of diary entries or memories of unknown narrators. A whole people have been erased in an act of all-encompassing violence. This happened roughly 70 years before, and the world has agreed to make sure to never let anything like it happen again. It has done this by not laying blame on anyone (for it would presumably have had to blame everyone who survived), but preaching love, harmony and simplicity and changing everybody’s last names to Jewish ones. All mention of “What happened, if it happened” has been erased from the archives, travelling between countries is as good as banned (although never explicitly, but rather in the spirit of universal harmony and understanding), and technology, known to have been instrumental in inciting hatred, has been reduced to landline telephones.

In a utopia like this, violence has changed its face. It’s now a strictly personal, local phenomenon. Women are battered by their husbands, friends murder each other, and the habit of constantly saying sorry (as instructed by the well-meaning authorities) has done nothing but given the people a free ticket to bully each other. One researcher realises that violence is a human trait that can only be channelled by a common enemy, and… you can see where this is going.

The world of J is one of the most frightening ones I have come across in literature. It’s outwardly quiet and well-ordered, but seething with violence and terror on the inside. Kevern’s world is bleak and entirely without purpose. Love comes as a small relief, but it’s overwhelmed by outside forces and memories of the past. Kevern feels like an outsider because his parents felt like outsiders, and he doesn’t know why. To the reader, it’s obvious why his father refused to even pronounce words starting with the letter J, or why his grandmother went mad trying to capture the horrors of “What happened” in the pages of her notebooks. But Jacobson goes along with the silence of the authorities in his novel by never mentioning the word “Jewish.” It’s left to the reader to make sense of this world, and with every step of recognition, the reader’s discomfort grows. Because it’s all there, all recognisable and entirely logical. But we, the readers, did not grow up in a world that has made it its purpose to negate what has happened and say sorry to each other at all times, just in case. We have been told, and we have laid the blame. We (and this is a different we) blame ourselves. We are made entirely uncomfortable by this book. What Jacobson is making us ask ourselves is this: Where’s the difference? Is any of these two ways of dealing with a holocaust the better, easier, foolproof choice? Are we making sure what happened will never be repeated? Could we do it any other, better way? And, ultimately, can we change our innately violent tendencies towards each other and the eternally persecuted?

It’s hard for me to discuss everything that went through my head reading this novel. I admire Jacobson’s thought process, and I accept being made so entirely uncomfortable as a human being, and, yes, as a German. I feel I have no say in the matter, and no right to criticise the parts I want to criticise. I don’t like Jacobson’s description of women as mad, battered or blinded by love in the face of big decisions. I don’t know if that’s what the novel demands, or whether it’s the way the author thinks. I think I don’t like the author all that much, but my discomfort disqualifies me from voicing my criticism. It’s a clever move on Jacobson’s part. A sly one, and an unfair one, perhaps, but as the author of a book like J, he wins.


By Karo

Schnazzy East German translator and cricket obsessive residing in England. I have other qualities, too.

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