At an anti-Israel rally in London during the recent conflict in Gaza, an apparently intelligent, respectable and rational white man in his early 30s said of the Jewish state, “I’m not condoning Hitler’s actions at all, but I think it’s even worse perhaps.” A month later, the German government revealed that police protection is in place for every synagogue and Jewish institution in Germany, presumably to defend them from attackers who hate Jews and use Palestinians as an excuse to do something about them. Make no mistake: anti-Semitism is resurgent in Europe, and its very existence so soon after the Holocaust staggers Howard Jacobson, who has written a e-book entitled “When Will Jews Be Forgiven For The Holocaust?” and regularly excoriates the frequently anti-Semitic bent to criticism of Israel in the British press’s best weekly column, which Jacobson has supplied to The Independent newspaper since 1998. In J (2014), he has reached the Man Booker shortlist with a novel investigating a world perhaps fifty years from now, where sinister sentiments such as those expressed by the London protester have taken root to such an extent that the unnamed country in which the novel is set (we presume Britain, though are never directly told) has suffered some form of genocide or series of large-scale pogroms, and government and society alike has decided that the way to deal with the past it is to forget it.
At the core of this wise and compelling novel is a relationship between bewildered and rudderless woodcarver Kevern Cohen and the younger orphan Aileen Solomons, who was raised in a convent. Both have mysterious family backgrounds which contemporary circumstances render them able to investigate only clandestinely. Subsequent questions of identity and history are presented through four main devices. First is the tracing of the relationship itself, which develops after Kevern and Aileen are introduced by a matchmaker at a countryside fair. Second is a series of logs recorded by “Professor of the Benign Visual Arts” and painter of “landscapes, naturally” Edward Zermansky, whose motivation for befriending Kevern is to investigate him on behalf of the authorities on the grounds that “I have a feeling about him, that’s all.” Third are occasional half-page reminiscences of earlier violence, euphemistically referred to by modern society as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED (Jacobson’s capitals). And fourth, a series of letters which form a plea from a woman to her parents not to disown her following her marriage to a Christian. The four coalesce towards what may be considered the climax of the novel’s linear narrative.
The novel’s cornerstone and much greater attraction, however, is the impression provided of the future society in which its events take place. Communication is strictly limited; inhabitants use “utility phones” and a console plays only “soothing music and calming news.” The internet is no more after contemporary rulers have reflected on what awful things people used to write to one another on their mobile phones and publish on their computers. The non-governmental regulatory body concerned with such matters, Ofnow, which “monitors the Public Mood,” fashions slogans such as “Yesterday Is A Lesson We Can Learn Only by Looking to Tomorrow” and “The Overexamined Life Is Not Worth Living.” To that end, OPERATION ISHMAEL has renamed everyone and given them Jewish sounding surnames in order to conceal differences in cultural, religious, or ethnic origin. Cities, towns, and villages have also been stripped of their names and given anodyne, meaningless alternatives. Access to the past is available only through illegally held family archives or via clues in memories of childhood, one of which, that of Kevern’s father sweeping his fingers across his lips whenever he spoke a word which begun with the letter J, gives the novel its title. Even this has been changed, as the letter J no longer exists. A new character, a J with two strokes through it, has replaced it. One element which distinguishes J from 1984, with which inevitable comparisons will be made, is that there is little sign of some overbearing “big brother” moving threateningly in the background enforcing the rules. Rather, it has been arrived at by a public consensus that the past must be avoided at all costs. The prisoners, it seems, are grateful for their chains. As one character puts it, “something terrible has been done to everybody everywhere. What is the point of hunting down specifics?’ Jacobson recently told an online Q and A that “nothing frightens me more than agreement.” It is agreement of the most craven kind that has produced in J a society where such whitewashing of history and alteration to public taste is undergone largely without sweeping diktats from authority.
Nothing was banned exactly — just not played. Encouraged to fall into desuetude, like the word desuetude. Popular taste did what edict and proscription could never have done, and just as, when it came to books, the people chose rags-to-riches memoirs, cookbooks and romances, so, when it came to music, they chose ballads.
As will already have been inferred, this is very different territory for those familiar with Jacobson’s signature sex comedies, Anglo-Jewish shtick, and satires on what tends nowadays to be referred to as the “metropolitan elite.” Though the words “Jew” or “Jewish” are never once used, several inferred references are made both to Jews and the low standards of much current criticism of Israel, but J and Jacobson’s previous work part company in that in no sense is Jacobson joking here. J is bleak, black, and unforgiving to the extent that what few touches of comedy there are seem unnecessary. One interview following J’s publication hinted that Jacobson had to labor hard to avoid including very much humor, but a few instances do slip through. They don’t necessarily have the desired effect, though, in a novel so clearly free of the light-hearted.
In brief summary, J brings us two parallel stories. One is a relatively conventional and not always entirely interesting love story and the other is a treatise on its post-genocide setting of a society prepared to pay any cost in order to forget. The latter topic is the more edifying, and it could be argued that the two do not sufficiently overlap, though an exception would be a visit Kevern and Aileen make to the capital city, redolent of London but nicknamed Necropolis. There, a taxi driver offers to take them to “where the Cohens lived,” before explaining that that was “before memory.” Overall, the supporting characters are probably more interesting than either Kevern or Aileen, and it is them upon whom we rely for what insight is provided into WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. These include Esme, an Ofnow worker who, heavy with ulterior motives, befriends Aileen; Denzdell Kroplik, a barber and local historian; and conspiracy theorist police officer Inspector Gutkind, whose investigation of a double murder leads him to Kevern. It is not until late in the novel that we learn why it is that Kevern and Aileen are central, though by that point the fact that they are perhaps not terribly exciting people means those revelations have less impact that they might. This does not detract much, however, from the overall sense of feeling in extremely safe hands with Jacobson in J, which is a considerable achievement for a novel so radically removed from the rest of its author’s oeuvre.
It can’t be helped: a word about 1984. When Christopher Hitchens visited North Korea in 2000 for a magazine piece, he did so determined to avoid the cliché of mentioning it, only to find when he wrote his copy that it was impossible (“it is as if Kim Il-Sung was given a copy and said ‘Hey, this could really work!’”). One feels rather similar about J. Clichés have marked several of the newspaper reviews of it so far, the inevitable “disturbing dystopian vision” sound bite being a personal favorite. My copy’s blurb cites not only 1984 but also, you guessed it, Brave New World. The truth is that such comparisons are, though lazy and predictable, tough to avoid. That said, if ever there was a time to be reminded of Orwell’s timelessness, it may be in the midst of a recent offering from the endlessly tedious Will Self which explained why he considers Orwell the “supreme mediocrity.” A novel such as J, especially if it should go on to win Jacobson his second Man Booker Prize in four years, will be further confirmation of the indispensable legacy which Orwell left. Simplistic comparisons are also often drawn between Jacobson and Philip Roth. Roth wrote almost a novel a year in the twilight of his career before his retirement at the age of 81; Jacobson is now 72, and if the imagination, vision, and seriousness of J is anything to go by, let us hope that the next number of years will give reason to make such comparisons even easier and those who draw them even lazier.