by Bernard Malamud
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 352 pp., $5.75
This is a Jewish fable: the hero as sufferer and martyr is a characteristic Jewish theme, comic and tragic, and a continuing one in Malamud’s novels. They also draw on the traditions of the Russian novel, in which, because Russian society was anarchic, the human being, in his native, unprotected, passive mind and flesh, could appear as if he were Nature itself. In The Fixer, a Jew in abysmal circumstances, orphaned by pogrom, childless, deserted by his wife, tries to free himself, takes one false step, commits a small illegal act, and destiny, i.e., history, is on to him at once. From that moment he goes from disaster to disaster; if there are respites in which the hope of normal felicity throws a gleam, this is only a deceit. Soon the screw will be turned tighter. The moral of Candide is that we must cultivate our gardens: The moral of Malamud’s story is that you will be left with no garden to cultivate. From him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath. That, of course, could be what you want: the ultimate sense of your own drama. Better be meek—yet meekness is a corrupting culture; suffering, into which Judaism and Christianity have put so much moral capital, is a miasma. Going to his final trial and probable death, Malamud’s hero learns the lesson that the philosophy he has tried to work out with the aid of Spinoza—picked up from a second-hand shelf—was really self-regarding: The virtuous man grows to his proper human dimension and becomes large or noble not by what is done to him but what he does. If you make a break with resignation and go in for active virtue you must continue:
One thing I’ve learned, he thought, there’s no such thing as an unpolitical man, especially a Jew. You can be one without the other, that’s clear enough. You can sit still and see yourself destroyed. Afterwards he thought, where there’s no fight for it there’s no freedom.
And so, if he survives his trial, this passive though stoical victim of the anti-Semitic witch hunt that followed the Russian revolution of 1905 will be a revolutionary. The relevance of the fable to the Negro or other minority situations is obvious. But Malamud is getting something native off his chest.
YAKOV BOK is a half-starving odd job man whose wife has left him because they have failed to produce children. He has rejected the orthodox Jewish teaching and sets out for Kiev to earn more money, and to continue his self-education. If he can he will struggle somehow across Europe to Amsterdam and ship to America, the promised land. In Kiev he ventures out of the ghetto and one night, against his better judgment, he plays the good Samaritan: He saves a drunken Russian from death by pulling him out of the snow. The grateful Russian offers the good Samaritan a …