Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question (2010)
I’m pleased to announce that I have now achieved such popularity that my friends tip me off about references to Canada in books they’re reading. This not only makes my job easier, but also allows me to cast a slightly wider net, as it leads to books I might never have got around to reading on my own.
This is one of those, so thanks to Craig Proctor. I’d never read Howard Jacobson before, but this novel won the Booker Prize, so he’s clearly doing all right. The main character, Julian Treslove, is not Jewish, but his two best friends (Libor Sevcik and Sam Finkler) are; the central idea of the novel seems to be that Treslove is a non-Jew who is obsessed with the idea of Jewishness, and in some sense wants to be Jewish.
To understand the context of the following quotations, you really only need to know this: in the opening chapter, Treslove is mugged by a woman who breaks his nose, steals his wallet, phone and credit cards and, he thinks, calls him “you Jew”. After the mugging, he begins to wonder how frequent anti-Semitic attacks are in the world, and this leads to several references to Canada.
Not expecting to find anything post-thirteenth-century Chelmno, he looked up ‘Anti-Semitic Incidents’ on the internet and was surprised to find upward of a hundred pages. Not all of them round the corner from the BBC, it was true, but still far more in parts of the world that called themselves civilised than he would ever have imagined. One well-maintained site gave him the option to choose country by country. (80)
There are entries for a couple of other countries (alphabetical order) before we reach the one that concerns us:
Canada? Yes, Canada.
And read that in the course of Canada’s now annual Israeli Apartheid Week events held on campuses throughout the country security officers roughed up Jewish hecklers, one of them warning a Jewish student to ‘shut the fuck up or I’ll saw your head off’.
Was that a home-grown Canadian deterrent, he wondered, sawing Jews’ heads off? (81)
Treslove then calls his friend Sam Finkler:
He rang Finkler after all to say how nice it had been to see him and did he know that in Caracas and in Buenos Aires and in Toronto – yes, Toronto! – and in Fontenay-sous-Bois and in London, but Finkler stopped him there. (82)
The most obvious thing to note here is the tone of incredulity: the repetition of Canada in italics with a question mark, and then the word “yes,” along with the subsequent repetition of Toronto, again with “yes” added, indicate that anti-Semitic attacks in Canada are completely unexpected. These verbal and typographical markers of surprise are reserved for Canadian anti-Semitism; none of the other countries with anti-Semitic incidents generates this kind of response, which adds to the sense of Treslove’s shock that such things go on here. Canada is certainly one of the places that “calls itself civilised,” as the first passage has it, but, more to the point, it is also a place that non-Canadians consider civilized. A contemporary Englishman like Treslove has a preconceived notion of Canada as a peaceful, multicultural place where anti-Semitism would surely be a thing of the fairly distant past.
But apparently such is not the case, and the book suggests that there may be an ugly reality lying beneath the sunny face Canada shows to the world. In particular, consider the word “now”:
…Canada’s now annual Israeli Apartheid Week events….
This use of “now” seems to indicate that Israeli Apartheid Week has recently become an annual event in Canada, and that this points towards growing anti-Semitism. And so, while one would tend to think of anti-Semitism as a prejudice that would recede over time, the book suggests that the opposite – at least in Canada – is the case. There is even a kind of weariness about the phrase “now annual,” as if this sort of thing is somehow to be expected.
Is the story about Canada true? On its website, the Anti-Defamation League maintains a list of anti-Semitic incidents organized by country, as described in the novel; the list for 2009 seems to be the source for much of Jacobson’s material here (look, particularly, at the ADL’s entries for Venezuela, Argentina and France and compare them to the information on those countries in The Finkler Question – the similarities are clear).
The ADL has an entry for Canada in 2009, but it contains nothing that resembles the threat of head-sawing. Here, however, is a report on an incident at the University of Toronto, also from 2009, that is clearly behind what Jacobson describes. And so, while we, as Canadians, surely don’t want to be thought of as a country where Jews are threatened with beheading, such a thing apparently did occur.
And the novel isn’t about to let us forget it: more references to the sawing off of heads, and to Toronto as a site of anti-Semitism, arise as Treslove begins to manufacture an identity and motivation for the woman who mugged him:
He had no choice but to name her Judith. Something to do with the Canadian security man threatening to saw the Jewish student’s head off. It was Judith who beheaded Holofernes. (83)
Or perhaps the mugging was just a taster of what she really had in store in him. A knife in his heart, maybe. A pistol at his head. A saw at his throat. (84)
(Is the phrase “in store in him” idiomatic in England? I would have expected “in store for him.”)
And one more:
And he saw himself kicked out of the way by passers-by, like a Jew’s dog on the streets of Caracas, or Buenos Aires, or Fontenay-sous-Bois, or Toronto. (85)
As you can see from the page numbers, the references to Canada form a little cluster in the section of the novel that deals with Treslove discovering that anti-Semitic attacks continue in the contemporary world. One of the central ideas of the novel (voiced by several characters at different points) is that anti-Semitism is unavoidable, and that while it may recede from time to time, it will always recur – so Canada isn’t being picked out as unusual in still having anti-Semitisim. Rather, we are seen as a country where one would least expect to find anti-Semitism – a compliment in terms of the way we’re viewed by the world, but one which, the novel suggests, we don’t live up to as well as we might hope.