Review: ‘The Yid’ by Paul Goldberg

The Yid. Paul Goldberg. Picador. 320 pages. $26.
The Yid. Paul Goldberg. Picador. 320 pages. $26.

In a discussion about the Holocaust or Pol Pot’s atrocities or some other systematic attempt by humans in power to exterminate other groups of humans, members of younger generations will ask: Why didn’t they fight back?

Some did, in spirit if not always so ably in body. And some, Paul Goldberg suggests in his provocative new novel The Yid, did so in secret.

To call The Yid a black comedy is as understated as saying Usain Bolt moves along at a good clip. It is an intense revenge fantasy starring underdogs who’ve decided they have nothing left to lose, but who don’t mind arguing with each other on their way to their doom. For a sense of Goldberg’s acid tone, imagine a Solzhenitsyn tale set in the lethal Soviet world but restyled by Larry David.

In the middle of a February night in 1953, a Soviet lieutenant and two thuggish soldiers show up at a Moscow apartment to arrest Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, a former Yiddish theater actor, for some unspecified and doubtlessly trumped-up crime against the state. The lieutenant expects an “old Yid;” initially, Levinson doesn’t disappoint, boring them and confusing them with theatrical reminiscences.

But Levinson, nicknamed derkommandir, is also a former Red Army fighter. When the lieutenant moves to clinch the arrest, Levinson kills all three with a pair of Finnish daggers, slitting the throats of two.

After this remarkable encounter, Goldberg writes, “comedy, tragedy and history abruptly join into one mighty stream.”

Coincidentally, Levinson’s friend Lewis drops by, stepping in warm, sticky blood and being drawn immediately into Levinson’s tsouris. Lewis is an African-American engineer who came to the Soviet Union long ago and never left. Russians occasionally mistake him for Paul Robeson, which will come in handy later.

Levinson interprets his state visitors as the latest sign that Stalin is about to launch a pogrom against the Jews. Even as he and Lewis figure out how to dispose of the thugs, Levinson concocts a brazen scheme to cut off the pogrom at its source, by taking out Stalin.

Their trusted if querulous co-conspirators include Kogan, a machine-gunner turned surgeon fond of Kafka’s The Trial; Kima Yefimovna, an intense young woman who works in a bottle redemption station; and Moisey Semyonovich, “a man of pathological bravery.”

If swear words in Yiddish, Russian or English hurt your ears, if the occasional succinct gory description of the murder of a state-sponsored thug upsets your tummy, if putting a black man in whiteface or vice versa offends your conscience, The Yid may not be for you. But if you’ve always been fascinated by Yiddish theater, this is your novel. Goldberg draws on Levinson’s past involvement in a production of King Lear to cast Stalin himself as a degraded Lear; there’s even a thug improbably named Kent.

Goldberg also taps the “Doctors’ plot,” Stalin’s anti-Semitic attack upon Moscow doctors on fabricated charges that they were conspiring to assassinate Soviet leaders through malpractice or poisoning. In this state, even medicine is a matter of political conformity.

Goldberg’s smart, sarcastic, bitter, occasionally unhinged voice is what makes The Yid remarkable, even for a reader who doesn’t remember who the Mensheviks were and why the Bolsheviks wanted to kill them. Here’s Kogan’s musing on how Stalin might get rid of thousands of Jews: “Excessive calculation was Hitler’s principal miscalculation. This operation will be carried out the Russian way: improvised, cheap and vicious.”

Jim Hawkins reviewed this book for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.