Philosophy, freedom, and Malamud’s Fixer

‘If I have any philosophy’, said Yakov Bok, ‘it is that life could be better than it is’. Yakov (the maligned hero of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Fixer (1966)) was a poor handyman, or ‘fixer’, who lived in a small Jewish village in pre-revolutionary Russia. When his wife left him for a stranger, he decided he was ready for change. Yakov packed up his tools and set out for Kiev to start anew. He threw his religious items into a river on the way to the city. He abandoned his name and the final evidence of his origin just as quickly when offered a job by a wealthy anti-Semite in a part of town restricted to Jews.

But the past has a way of catching up with us. One day a boy was found murdered and drained of blood in a cave near Yakov’s factory. When, in the course of their investigations, the authorities discovered that Yakov was a Jew, they accused him of ritual murder. Anti-Semites to a man, the authorities tried everything they could to frame the fixer for the crime. The fact that Yakov had rejected Judaism and identified as a freethinker counted for nothing.

Yakov was thrown into solitary confinement while charges were prepared against him. The transformations that he’d made on the way to Kiev now seemed entirely cosmetic. Like a child, he had assumed he could lose his shadow just by looking the other way. The truth, Yakov now realized, was that he was shackled to his identity just as surely as he was locked in this filthy cell.

For weeks and months Yakov languished in the cell without charge. The shadow of the past became huge and malignant, filling the space of his life and world. Yakov’s father-in-law called on him to repent, to fall to his knees in prayer. But Yakov despaired of God and used the time to think.

This is how he discovered philosophy. [Read more…]