Paul Goldberg’s first novel, The Yid (2016), was an antic masterpiece: a screwball comedy about the assassination of Josef Stalin and a romp through the Soviet anti-Semitic purges of 1953. The Doctors’ Plot had already been announced by newspapers, show trials had begun, and rumors of a pogrom to finish Hitler’s work were everywhere. Black Marias, the paddy wagons of the secret police, roamed the snowy streets:
At night, Moscow is the czardom of black cats and Black Marias. The former dart between snowbanks in search of mice and companionship. The latter emerge from the improbably tall, castle-like gates of Lubyanka, to return laden with enemies of the people.
Into this deadly Moscow winter Goldberg inserts a ragged, random bunch of misfits who rise up to stop the murder of Soviet Jews. A clownish Jewish actor from GOSET, the Moscow State Jewish Theater that was closed down by the Soviet government in 1949, sets in motion the unlikely events that ultimately lead to Stalin’s death. When the police arrive at his apartment to arrest him, he greets them with an elaborate bow. “‘Allow me to introduce myself: Solomon Shimonovich Levinson,’ says the old man, straightening to the formidable extent of his frame. ‘Artist pogorelogo teatra.’ Actor of a burned-down theater.” He is dressed in “sky blue long underpants, a dark brown undershirt, a deep purple robe, and a matching ascot. (Actors of burned-down theaters have an affinity for ascots.)” He graciously shows them some photographs of himself: with a group of soldiers, standing on his head in a Surrealist play, and in “Kinig Lir, the opening scene. I sit atop the throne. Lir’s throne, until they chase me away. The Nar is on the throne.”
The Nar—the Fool—then gracefully flies into a pirouette he used to perform in Bar Kokhba, the classic Yiddish play about revolt by Abraham Goldfaden. In an inversion of method acting, about which there is some conversation in the novel, Levinson turns his art into his life—as well as three deaths—and flamboyantly hurls daggers at the policemen, slitting their throats.
What follows is a farce, a meditation on theater, a primer in Soviet anti-Semitic mythology, and the shaggy tale of a desperate attempt by Levinson and his friends to get rid of the bodies and stop the pogrom they fear is imminent. One member of the tiny rebellion, a Jewish doctor named Kogan, a war hero who has become a pacifist, has begun to
think of purges as epidemics that start out with a small, concentrated population, then expand their reach nationally, even globally. Once he picked up a blank piece of paper and started to jot down the fundamentals of a discipline he would call politico-historical epidemiology.
Another accidental conspirator, an engineer and an old friend of Levinson’s named Lewis, was simply planning to…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.