Thursday, July 5, 2012
Book Review of Jacob the Liar by Jurek Becker
Author: Jurek Becker
Publisher: Helen and Kurt Wolff Book Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
Type of book: Holocaust, 1944, ghetto, humor, radio, anti-Jewish rules, Poland, hope
Year it was published: 1969 (version I have 1975)
In a feat of sheer storytelling reminiscent of Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jurek Becker writes of a Jewish community's tragic fate gently and humorously. Set in a Polish ghetto near the close of World War II, the novel centers on the artless and unheroic figure of Jacob Heym, former proprietor of a modest cafe, who accidentally overhears a German news report of Soviet army advances. When Jacob relays the news,word spread throughout the ghetto with the added rumor that Jacob possesses a contraband radio. To his dismay, he finds himself a hero. Challenged to authenticate the real news, Jacob extemporizes: son, he who heretofore has invented ntohing more daring than a potato pancake is driven to produce battle plans and bulletins, all encouraging. Despite his own temptation to despair, Jacob continues to provide his fellow Jews with cause for hope- and the will to survive- almost to the final moment.
Through irony and understatement, Becker succeeds splendidly in giving to a bitter theme an aura of cheerfulness and wit. The novel is neither aggressive nor angry; in showing Jacob's "lie" as the courage of a mensch whose sole weapon against the powers of anti-life is ingenuity, Becker hints at a quiet human victory even over the holocaust.
The author writes characters with humor and it seems that they are infused with light rather than darkness. The story itself can best be described as the reader being an outsider rather than insider. The ending is already known and it's not a mystery as to what has happened. There are a lot of characters in the novel, the important ones being Jacob and his adopted daughter. Jacob simply tries to get through day by day and somehow he ends up being a hero in trying to give Jews he lives with hope. There are also characters that tend to be misfits, such as one that never knew he was Jewish and the others that are religious and so forth. Mostly the Jews are portrayed as people who live everyday life just like anybody else.
There is a struggle against the inevitability of death as well as despair vs hope and which is better or rather the hope that change will occur.
This is a mixture of first person narration and third person narration and the narrator seems to be omniscient, as in he could tell the thoughts of everyone. This also strikes me as a novel that tries to fight against the time yet at the same time seems to be rushing forward to the inevitable conclusion. There aren't any chapters in the novel and at times I felt confused by it or by the characters themselves I suppose. It is a worthwhile read, and for a Holocaust novel it's not completely full of endless darkness.
Born in Poland in 1937, Jurek Becker spent most of his young years in the Lodz ghetto and in concentration camps. He is now a resident of East Berlin where he writes for film, television, and cabaret. Jacob the Liar, his first novel, was originally written as a screenplay. When the film did not materialize, Becker rewrote the story as a novel, in which form it achieved international success. Subsequently the film was produced and was sent in 1974 as the East German entry to the 25th Berlinale Film Festival in West Berlin, where it won the coveted Silbar Bar award. Written in German by a Pole, the novel has been translated into French, Italian, and now English.
I had to read this novel for a Holocaust class and found it to be an unusual read; for one thing there aren't any chapters, and its written with humor rather than grimness. Something else that's unusual about it is that little by little the reader gets the sense of darkness that the characters have to live through rather than have darkness thrown in from the first sentence. Although I'm not one hundred percent of the symbolism, it started with trees and ended with trees and tends to move from 1944 to the present time and so forth. Whatever humor the novel possessed, I couldn't understand it nor capture it. I think its mainly me though, and not the book itself.
4 out of 5
(0: Stay away unless a masochist 1: Good for insomnia 2: Horrible but readable; 3: Readable and quickly forgettable, 4: Good, enjoyable 5: Buy it, keep it and never let it go.)