After losing his wallet to an anti-semitic mugger one week, and getting mistaken for Billy Crystal the next, forty-nine-year-old Julian Treslove, the protagonist of Howard Jacobson’s Booker-winning novel, The Finkler Question, begins to wonder if he really is Jewish.
It would explain a lot, Treslove thinks: why he loves opera; why his father was brokenhearted; why his last name is so obviously not Jewish. And while his two friends, Finkler and Libor, both Jewish widowers, try to convince him that there is nothing Jewish about him, Treslove becomes obsessed with their clever wordplay, their complex shame, and their telepathic ability to mention the Holocaust without mentioning the Holocaust.
In his efforts to immerse himself in Jewishness, or Finklerism as he insists on calling it, Treslove begins seeing Libor’s great-great niece, Hephzibah Weizenbaum. Hephzibah is the curator for a new museum of Anglo-Jewish culture (i.e., not a Holocaust museum), and when vandals wrap the door handles in bacon, Treslove is amazed by her ability to feel fear and amusement at the same time. “It wasn’t even a matter of reconciling opposites,” Treslove thinks, “because they were not opposites for her. Each partook of the other.”
Likewise, Jacobson often finds humor in despair and vice versa. But while Hephzibah laughs and cries simultaneously, Treslove, in a singular moment of awareness, wonders if such flexibility isn’t a bit irresponsible, and he’s right to do so. Sometimes the novel’s subjects are simply too heavy for the satire’s gaunt characters to bear, and when oblivious antics lead to serious consequences, a suspicious rift opens between comedy and tragedy, cause and effect.
It’s difficult to discuss stereotypes with caricatures, to discuss death with characters who could never live. Jacobson succeeds more often than not, however, and a few tragic non sequiturs aside, The Finkler Question is a funny and insightful exploration of Jewishness, friendship, grief, and love.