Based on a true story, The Fixer is the story of a Russian Jew who, in the early 1900s, is unjustly accused of murdering a Christian boy. Bernard Malamud’s 1966 novel won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Yakov Bok has a hard luck life as a handyman, or fixer, in the Jewish Pale of Settlement. Although political reforms following the 1905 revolution gave Jews new freedoms and political clout, life in the Pale had not improved. After his childless wife abandons him for a goy, Yakov leaves the shtetl for Kiev, where he ends up working in, and living above, a Christian-owned brick factory. With an assumed name, no papers to allow him to live in that part of the city, and anti-Jewish sentiments on the rise, Yakov is headed for trouble.
When the mutilated body of a neighborhood boy is found stuffed in a cave, the evidence – circumstantial and fabricated – mounts against Yakov. He is arrested and left to rot in prison while the sham investigation drags on for years as anti-Semitic authorities try to build a case of ritual murder. With no indictment, no lawyer, and no idea of what is to come, Yakov’s situation is a downward spiral of gloom.
Yakov is motivated by his dwindling hope of exoneration, only meagerly spurred on by a few rare contacts with the outside and tidbits of news about his case. Although claiming to be non-religious and non-political, Yakov worries that his case will spark violent retribution or even a new pogrom against the Jews.
Malamud incorporates Yakov’s tragedy into the larger picture by having characters discuss Russia’s anti-Semitic history and Tsarist politics. It is this contextual detail that raises Yakov’s story above that of one individual’s tribulations and makes it a morality tale about freedom and responsibility in the face of evil and suffering. One of the characters explains Malmud’s thesis:
I am somewhat of a meliorist. That is to say, I act as an optimist because I find I cannot act at all, as a pessimist. Once often feels helpless in the face of the confusion of these times, such a mass of apparently uncontrollable events and experiences to live through, attempts to understand, and if at all possible, give order to; but one must not withdraw from the task if he has some small thing to offer – he does so at the risk of diminishing his humanity.
Or, as Yakov put it more succinctly as he was finally being taken to his trial, “[T]here’s no such thing as an unpolitical man, especially a Jew.”
Malamud is an incredible writer. Even though this story is horribly grim, he grabs the reader and does not let go. The Fixer is a book that everyone should read and, once read, ponder.
This book was my "double dipper" choice for the Battle of the Prizes Challenge.