Reviews, Vol I, Issue II
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German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel once said, “We learn from history that we don’t learn from history,” which, besides being a clever bit of wordplay, is also profoundly true.
Those that believe that the Holocaust could never happen again---HERE and NOW---are clearly delusional and/or naively optimistic. A rising tide of Neo-Nazism in Europe, growing anti-semitic hostilities in the Middle East, the Islamic State a.k.a. ISIS: anyone with eyes and ears can see the same nationalism and racial hatred that bred the monsters of Germany in the 1930s.
Today, on many city streets worldwide, small race wars continually play out between trigger-happy cops and angry black teens, with neither group willing to listen to the other. Whether it’s black vs. white, straight vs. gay, conservative vs. liberal, Gentile vs. Jew, Christian vs. Muslim, it’s the same old hostilities playing out in the same old horrible ways.
Hegel was right. If we have learned nothing else from history, it’s that we have learned nothing from history. This is why Howard Jacobson’s latest novel, “J”, is so apropos.
Jacobson’s novel envisions a future supposedly several generations removed from our present and yet near enough to be terrifyingly prescient.
In this future, the past is nonexistent. Nostalgia is illegal. Popular media is watered-down to sentimentalist pap. Certain topics are not to be discussed. Specific events in history never happened, according to official reports. It is like this to protect the populace from a horrific truth; an attempt to erase from the collective unconscious an event so bad that it is referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.
The utopic peace is gradually unravelling, though. Neighborly resentments are creeping into the idyllic towns and villages. Suppressed hostilities and incidents of rage and violence are slowly on the rise. Murder---a crime thought to be virtually eliminated---has returned.
The average citizen is at a loss to understand what is happening. Kevern Cohen, a college professor and amateur carpenter, is one such citizen. He has just met and fallen in love with the woman of his dreams, Ailinn Solomons. He is also a minor suspect in the murder of another local woman. He has no idea that he is actually the subject of a government-sanctioned experiment.
Part “Truman Show” and part “1984”, “J” extrapolates a dystopic future wherein society faces the consequences of a regrettable decision made by its ancestors and tries to correct and unsettling.
Hidden within plain sight in the novel is the future plight of the Jewish people. It’s not good. Nowhere in the novel does Jacobson ever use the words “Jew” or its variations or the word “holocaust”: perhaps the first clue. The second major clue lies in the title.
Whenever Kevern utters a word that starts with the letter “j”, he involuntarily puts his finger in front of his mouth, as if shushing himself. He doesn’t know why he does this. His father and mother always did it, and he learned the behavior from them, but he has never really questioned it. Intuitively, he knows it has something to do with WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, but he doesn’t want to examine it too fully. To do so is not only frightening, it’s also illegal. It doesn’t, however, stop Ailinn from investigating the strange behavioral tics of the man she loves. Of course, what they both discover is something that neither could have imagined.
Jacobson’s tightly-constructed novel unravels itself like a murder mystery. It’s a suspenseful and intriguing thriller and, at the same time, a brilliant speculative examination of irrational hatred on a global level. It is not implausible. Indeed, its plausibility is what makes it such an important book.
Reviewed by Scott Richard Rhee
Scott lives in Cleveland, Ohio.