on December 27, 2000
Yakov Bok, a rural Ukrainian handyman (a "fixer") in the years before World War I, yearns for something better. His luck has been down all his life, he can't make ends meet, his wife ran off, and what brings him the most injustice of all: he is a Jew. The strangling weight of anti-Semitism in Tsarist Russia clubs the reader page after page and slowly grinds Yakov down when he is jailed for a crime he did not commit. Much of "The Fixer" is jail time, seen through Yakov's disbelieving yet cynical eyes.
Malamud won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Fixer", written in 1976. It was well-deserved. Yakov's struggle is as much with himself as with the gnawing injustice of the state, with the ignorance in Kiev, and the wickedness of local officials eager to see him imprisoned, even knowing he is not guilty. Yakov searches for the god of the Jews, failing to comprehend a god who would let his people be victimized so mercilessly. That Yakov's struggle is as much moral and philosophical as legalistic is the source of much of the book's significance, as well as its occasional tragi-comedy. When Yakov's father-in-law spends a small fortune in bribes to visit him in prison, they spend their precious ten minutes together debating theology. It turns out this scene is seminal because their debate - whether god has abandoned Yakov or vice versa - is the core of the tale. Later, the politico-historical context, the cynical manipulation of anti-Semitic sentiment in Russia, is outlined by Yakov's attorney, but this is a book of morality and justice, much more than of politics.
Yakov never loses his compassion for others, keeping a good thought for his faithless wife, for fellow prisoners, and even those jailers who show him occasional compassion. As Yakov's lucidity waivers in his worst moments of despair or physical weakness, so does the narrative. This is how Malamud does such a wonderful job of placing the reader in Yakov's icy cell to share his outrage and hopelessness. Yakov's confusion is mirrored in Malamud's prose. We suffer with the prisoner. "The Fixer" is a wonderful story, calling to mind Kafka's "The Trial" as well as the dense internal dialogues of Dostoevsky. Yakov Bok is not a hero, but manages to be heroic just the same.
In chains all that was left of freedom was life, just existence; but to exist without choice was the same as death. -Bernard Malamud, The Fixer
In this National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, Bernard Malamud presents a fictionalized account of a notorious anti-Semitic incident, the arrest and eventual trial, following a great outcry in the West, of Mendel Beilis in pre-Revolutionary Kiev. Beilis was accused of murdering a Christian boy, despite evidence pointing toward the boy's own mother. After being held from 1911 to 1913, he was finally brought to trial, where he was exonerated.
In this novel the protagonist is Yakov Bok, a nominally Jewish handyman ("fixer")--nominally because he has abandoned his Jewish beliefs for a Spinoza influenced kind of "free thinking"--leaves his village after being cuckolded by his wife. Eventually ending up in Kiev, he one day comes upon a man collapsed in the street and decides to help him, despite noticing that he is wearing a Black Hundreds pin (symbol of a vicious anti-Semitic organization). The man, who turns out to be a local merchant who was merely drunk, offers Yakov a job managing his brickyard, not realizing that he is Jewish. Yakov accepts, despite much trepidation, goes to work under an assumed name, Yakov Ivanovitch Dologushev, and moves into an apartment in an area forbidden to Jews.
Once on the job he runs afoul of : the merchant's daughter, whose sexual advances he deflects; local boys, who he he chases out of the factory yard; and the employees, who he warns about stealing bricks. These seemingly petty disagreements prove to have disastrous results when a local boy is found murdered, stabbed repeatedly and drained of blood. Yakov, who the authorities have discovered is Jewish, is accused of committing the murder as a form of ritual killing to harvest Christian blood for use in some imagined rites for Passover celebration :
The ritual murder is meant to re-enact the crucifixion of our dear Lord. The murder of Christian children and the distribution of their blood among Jews are a token of their eternal enmity against Christendom, for in murdering the innocent Christian child, they repeat the martyrdom of Christ.
The victim is one of the boys that Yakov had chased, and both daughter and fellow employees are only too willing to give false testimony against him. The initial prosecutor assigned to the case is relatively friendly, and obviously skeptical about this theory of the case, but he does not last long.
His rivals and replacements try with great brutality to wring a confession from Yakov. In part, they are motivated by an understanding that the evidence they have against him is terribly inadequate : they are determined to keep the case from going to trial. Yakov, on the other hand, recognizes that he if he can just get to a courtroom he has a chance to clear himself, and Jews generally, of this blood libel. There follows a harrowing, years-long, battle of wills, in which Yakov takes on truly heroic dimensions : a simple, non-political, nonbeliever, is transformed before our eyes into a powerful symbol of resistance to anti-Semitism, injustice, tyranny and hatred. By the end of the story he resembles nothing so much as one of the Titans--an Atlas holding the weight of the world on his own shoulders; a Prometheus, having his innards picked out by carrion birds every day; or a Sisyphus, futilely pushing a boulder up a hill every day, only to have it roll back down every night. Yakov too seems sentenced by God to bear a punishment for all mankind, and he too bears up under it with superhuman strength and transcendent nobility. Superficially then it seems to resemble an existentialist novel, but Yakov derives his strength, and the story derives its universality and its power, from his determination to prove his innocence, a determination which would not matter to an existentialist.
Through the culture-consuming hegemony of the movies, Malamud is today best remembered for The Natural, but The Fixer is the book upon which his reputation should rest. It is a great novel; one that deserves a place on the shelf with the works of George Orwell, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Arthur Koestler, and the other great novelists of the Twentieth Century whose theme was the struggle of the individual against the machinations of the State and against the soul-destroying ideological pathologies which undergird totalitarian states.
GRADE : A+
When I went to start Malamud's "The Fixer" I expected that I would find a work of great brilliance. Being that it was the first book ever to win both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, only done once since, I expected unusually inspiring prose. I was not disappointed. Malamud's depiction of a man, in prison, in terrible conditions, virtually concentration camp scenarios, of a man, accused of a crime he did not commit, due to anti-semitism in Russia during the period 1904 through 1907 or thereabouts.
Malamud not only gives us the full impact and feeling of the isolation, desolation and frustration of a prisoner in terrible conditions, waiting just for a "letter of indictment", not even knowing whether he would be accused of the terrible rumor that abounded. Malamud takes us through periods of hope for the prisoner, and then dashes those hopes. He takes us through the feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and the struggle that such a combination creates with the concept of suicide.
Written without any fanciness in terms of high language, but using only words that one could understand with a 9th grade education, Malamud constructs what is a classic novel of our just past century. It reveals itself with both the absurdity of a Kafka story and the intensity of "Blindness" by Saramago (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1998). For serious thinkers of the human mind and the places it takes one in conditions of great extremity, this book is a must read item. To get close to the real feelings of prison hopelessness combined with intense anti-semitism, read Malamud's book and then come to a new understanding of the human condition and its obscurity as an individual in a world turned against one.
on December 8, 2005
Yakov Bok is a humble Jewish fixer (carpenter) living in Russia in 1910. He leaves his small village and moves to Kiev, looking for work and a better life. His wife has left him for another man and he has no significant relations to speak of. It's a dangerous time to be Jewish, as the pogroms are widespread and practically government sanctioned. Pretending to be a gentile, Bok finds work with an anti-semite at a brickyard and moves into an area that is off limits for Jews. Things go well for a while, until a young Christian boy is killed and Bok finds himself framed for the murder.
Although there is no evidence against him, other than hysterical, unreliable anti-semite "witnesses", things look bad for Bok and he is thrown in prison to await a formal indictment.
The majority of the book covers Bok's time in prison and solitary confinement. It becomes clear the prosecution is dragging its feet, not delivering the indictiment, as they have a shaky chance of winning the case if it ever goes to trial.
It's a fast book, but a very painful and somewhat depressing one. It deals heavily with anti-Semitism. Some of the anti-semitic passages are almost breathtaking in their ferocity. It becomes very painful, at times almost (but not quite) tragi-comic. In particular, a lengthy sermon (?) given by a priest that basically likens the Jewish to vampires.
In many ways the book reminded me of "1984". A man up against the monolithic powers of the state. Not quite as imposing though, because Bok seems to grow stronger and more resiliant in his spirit even as his body and mind are broken. The prosecution repeatedly dangles a confession in his face but Bok refuses steadfastly to sign, even at the risk of triggering a pogrom. It's interesting to note that Bok is also an avowed aetheist, and stolidly refuses to seek solace in God. He reads the bible only as a way of keeping himself from going insane, and the only thing that really seems to comfort him is philosophy (Spinoza, in particular) and the philosophical concept of freedom.
Part of what is so painful is that for long stretches the entire world seems to be against him. EVERYONE he encounters is either a thug, a snitch, a backstabber (or all three!).
An excellent book. A fast read, but very painful.
on September 8, 1999
I am a sophomore at Orange High School and a child of Russian immigrants, but was born in the U.S. I had to read "The Fixer" as an English summer reading book, and I was completely moved. This book is probably the best book I have ever read, at least one that was assigned for school! When our teacher asked us if it was too offensive, I said "It is offensive at times. But it tells it how it really was, and it makes us feel just as Yakov Bok felt at the time of the persecution." I may be a high school student, but I know a good, mature book when I see one. This is a very-well written, moving book that is worth the while to read. But once you start, you may find yourself not putting the book down until you finish!
on March 25, 2005
This edition is the same as the previous but with the addition of an incisive introduction by Jonathan Foer who points out that this book is a moral book which drives the reader through the force of the prose to act againt the injustice in society.
Even though The Natural might be better known because it was made into a film. This book along with with his collected short stories are true classics that will stand the test of time.
This book tackles many large questions. Yakov whose wife left him even before he was arrested has becomes an athiest because he can no longer believe in a god that allows terrible things to happen in the world. As a self educated man he finds solace in the world view of Spinoza. As a unjustly accused person he refuses to kill himseld despite the horrid condition in prison; not out of religious scruples but in order to clear his name.
But the major aspect he considers --in my opinion better than any other novel or history--is the development of Otherness and especially anti-semetism.
I do hope that people will continue to read The Fixer until there is aworld without Otherness.
on September 25, 2015
Depressing, no ending, and borders on being propaganda.
I have enjoyed every Malamud short story and novel I have ever read until this one. I have no idea why it won so many awards. Actually, I could guess why, but this is not the place to speculate.
Everything I want to say about this novel is sarcastic, so I will abstain from saying too much.
The writing, of course, too notch. The subject matter, unfortunately, is not. It is blatantly anti -Christian, and even though it is supposedly loosely based on a true event, I can't help but shake the feeling that the author took great liberties to tell this story.
I hope that my observations are incorrect and that this is simply an out-of-control morality tale about the importance of keeping religious faith.
Another thing, if not acquainted with the the most rudimentary knowledge of Russian history, a reader might be led to mistakenly believe that czarist rule was the darkest period of 20th century Russian misery.
I am far from an expert on Russion/Jewish/Eastern European literature. In fact, all things considered, I am barely versed in it considering the rich, vast, and complex histories involved. But, with that being said, I will attempt to make the following recommendations from personal reading experiences.
If you want to read a real Russian novel that explores the pits of human despair and the complexities of this nation's history, go for Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Solzhenitsyn, etc., etc. These authors are called great for a reason.
If you want to read about the trials and cultural history of European Jews, try pretty much anything by Chaim Potoc and Israel Singer, especially "The Brothers Ashkenazi."
Finally, if you want to read some great books that masterfully explore a wide range of topics (baseball, Americans living abroad, classic early-mid 20th century NYC, the American immigration experience, small store owners, American Jewish life...) pick up anything written by Bernard Malamud. Anything EXCEPT the book I'm trying hard not to actually review.
on July 6, 1997
An amazing story of a 20th century Russian Jew accused of the crime of killing and drinking the blood of a Christian child, an ancient accusation that would have been unthinkable anywhere outside of Czarist Russia at this time.
The account is fictionalized, but I think the basic facts are true: there was such a man who was later acquitted by an all-peasant jury and subsequently immigrated to the United States.
I have rarely been disappointed by Malamud and this book is certainly no exception.
on March 8, 2005
Author Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for this stunning portrayal of injustice, prejudice, and false imprisonment. Yakov Bok is a poor Jewish handyman from Kiev falsely accused of blood libel - killing a Christian child in order to use his blood to make Passover Matzos. Such false charges were not unheard of in Eastern Europe during periods of anti-Semitism. Readers feel as if they are practically beside Bok as he sits in prison, isolated, frustrated, and clinging desperately to hope that his innocence will somehow be demonstrated. Bok must also contend with his previously unhappy life, his lack of faith, a wife who left him, and anger from some inside prison who believe the charges. Bok's sanity and sturdiness waiver under the stress of his predicament, and he struggles to retain his sanity and compassion.
This powerful tale was partly based on the case of Mendel Beilis, a Jew from Tsarist Russia who was acquitted of the same false charge in 1913 after having spent two years in prison. This is a superb tale injustice, and the mental struggle of an individual to survive the ordeal of false imprisonment.
on November 10, 2001
"The Fixer", written in clean clear prose that has terrific strength is one of those seminal books that the reader will most likely never forget. Malamud understands (as the author of the negative review clearly does not) that good prose is architecture, not interior decoration. The story of Jakov Bok is a story of the triumph of the human spirit over the crushing weight of anti-semetic hatred. It ought to be on the shelf of all Christian reading rooms and church libraries so that the full bestiality of the persecution of the Jewish people can be understood. The story is riveting. The only thing that disturbs me is that the ending is unresolved and we never know Bok's fate. No other reviewer has mentioned this and I would be interested to know if this disturbed anyone else, considering the fact that the entire novel is building up to Bok's trial.