Sunday, October 23, 2011

Book Review - The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

Meet Julian Treslove, a non-descript British man who is of nothing special. His life is his own repeated mistake and readers cannot do anything to change it otherwise. All we can do is just read. One night, however, after leaving his friends in a restaurant, he is the victim of a random mugging, except that this is no ordinary mugging; his assailant is a woman who is anti-Semitic, calling him you Jew as she rifles through his pockets. Although Julian is not a Jew, he does have Jewish friends; here in lies the beginning of Howard Jacobson’s novel The Finkler Question that was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Book Prize. This dense yet page turning novel asks the Finkler Question created by Julian; that is, the question posed by Julian after his humiliating mugging – what makes one Jewish? Can anyone be Jewish or is it something deeper than a simple “I Am”? His friends, former teacher Libor Sevcik and philosopher, writer and anti-Semitic Jew Sam Finkler both have their own answers towards Julian’s questions, yet a fairly reasonable answer (one that Julian can understand) comes in the form of his latest lover named Hephzibah, or Juno for short, who is Jewish and helps him discover his inner Jewish nature although he was not born one.
This was my introduction into the highly literary world of Jacobson; after reading this novel, it left me with more questions than answers. No questions as to the writing style or the plot itself, of both were very intense and fulfilling. Yet, my questions were, like Julian’s, deeper: what does it mean to be a Jew in this day and age? What makes one what they are? Can one who is nothing become something greater than expected? My knowledge of the Jewish faith stems from my studies at university and from what my Jewish friends have told me on occasion, plus information gathered from the news. They are a people filled with culture, history, intellect, wisdom and ironically enough, sadness. Julian’s discovery of his own “Jewishness” can at best be labeled with those words and many more, for while studying the religion he comes to understand just what it means to be Julian Treslove, which is more than just a face among the sea of British people. He is, along with his friends with their right or wrong ways of life, are people. People who make something of themselves, leaving a mark that will either be good or bad in the long run. While Julian turns towards the Jewish faith for answers of his life, Sam Finkler turns away from the Jewish faith and instead finds more than he expected. Libor seeks out answers from within and, while steadily living out his elder years, finds regret and sorrow waiting for him at the bottom of the waters that ultimately take his life. The Finkler Question is not just for Jewish people, nor is it for British people. The Finkler Question, I think, is this: do you truly understand the life you live? For me, I am still living out my life. I’ll get back to you when I am dead.

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