I haven’t read much Malamud, though he was a dominant literary figure during the 20th century. Books like The Assistant and The Magic Barrel were widely read and discussed. Along with Arthur Herzog, Malamud was probably (at least to my limited knowledge) the premier Jewish writer of his generation. Not that either his appeal or his audience was limited to Jews, but that community was the source of his inspiration and material.
The fixer is one of the most jarring and painful tales I’ve read, which covers a lot of territory. Jakov Bok is a Russian/Ukranian handyman. Issue the call and he’ll be there with his tool box and his skills and will take whatever is malfunctioning and put it to rights. The thing is, he doesn’t make much money at it. Add to his privation the fact that he’s trapped in a childless and loveless marriage, and Jakov finally has all he can take.
He picks up his tools and his skills and heads for Kiev looking for opportunity. Right away there is trouble. Although he’s more or less atheistic/agnostic, he’s a jew. He doesn’t look particularly Jewish. He would perhaps be better off if he did. As it is, he picks up work, is promoted to a fairly responsible position, which includes an apartment near his place of work. That place is a brick factory, and one of his duties is to make sure the number of bricks the factory turns out matches the number of bricks that go out the door. Problem is, a lot of bricks go out the back door, where the workers sell them on the street and pocket the profits. Jakov incurs resentment as he polices the malefactors. Furthermore, the factory owner has a lonely daughter who lives in the same building as Jakov and who seeks to cure her loneliness by cultivating a relationship with our guy. Also, there are gangs of boys who like to use the stacks of bricks for the playground, something Jakov, the loyal employee, can’t tolerate, so he chases them off periodically. None of this things are awful in and of themselves, but when a crisis ensues, they add up.
One of the young boys Jakov has been chasing is murdered. A rumor goes out that whoever stabbed him also drained his blood, a sure sign of ritual sacrifice by a Jew or Jews who need Christian blood to satisfy their hunger for sacrifice, which originated with THE crucifixion. They’ve just got to relive that over and over.
There is an investigation. Jakov is identified as a harasser and persecutor of the boys. He has been both careless and victimized. The quarters to which his employer has most generously treated him are forbidden to Jews. He should have registered when he moved in, but to register would have involved revealing himself and wrecking his newfound road to prosperity. Right away, then, he is a suspect. Then he is arrested and jailed. Then the persecution begins. The official apparatus goes into full swing. The investigation proceeds apace. Jakov has spurned the employer’s daughter after he walked in on the verge of a liaison and saw she was menstruating. As she was unclean by his cultural standards, he refused to go through with it. Scorned, she fashions a lie or two, and he’s condemned for his attempt to attack a virtuous Christian girl. His attempt to live where he shouldn’t is taken as an attempt by a member of the world-wide Jewish cabal to infiltrate the Christian community. They do it all the time. We have to be vigilante. The number of stab wounds on the boy’s body is taken to have holy significance, though the published number and pattern of the wounds keeps changing with the ever-changing identities of the judges and prosecutors. More and more legendary stereotypes keep being attached to Jakov whether they have anything to do with him or not. He has the nose he has the hands he has the accent, the mannerisms–sure giveaways of his Jewishness. These all are signs that he’s out to trick, bedevil, and bankrupt good Christians. On some days he’ll brazenly attack you, on others he’ll trick you with one of his sly manipulations. We have to be vigilant.
While all this investigating and theorizing is going on, Jakov is in jail, suffering the most agonizing tortures the very imaginative authorities can devise. He is not allowed to read. He is once caught reading from one of the newspapers he’s been given to wipe his rear. He is whipped. No more paper. He once tried to get a message to the outside via a fellow Jew who was about to be released. His “partner” betrays him. He is chained with chains so short he cannot bring his bowl of watery soup to his mouth. He must lap it up like a dog. And on and on and on. Two and a half years he goes on like this, vainly awaiting his official indictment and all the time refusing to confess. He is made to understand that if he confesses he will be sentenced to life in Siberia or some such place but will not be executed and will no longer be confined to a cell. Jakov will admit nothing and he doesn’t trust the “promises” anyhow.
It would be hard to credit the possibilities of this story if we hadn’t had such modern examples. Witness the chant of “The Jews will not replace us” by crowds at Charlottesville recently. Evil, like rust, never sleeps