Thursday, November 19, 2009

282: Operation Shylock - Philip Roth

History: This book was published in 1993. Operation Shylock radically attacks the distinction between life and art by making a fairly mimetic version of the author the protagonist of an obviously invented (though plausible) story. The book itself, like several of Roth’s novels, walks the tightrope between fact and fiction. It’s written in first-person confessional style and built on the foundation of factual events; yet a disclaimer at the book’s end insists that Shylock is pure invention. Yet despite this effort, separating the real from the fictional in Operation Shylock is not wholly impossible. Specifically, several minor characters from the novel are actual people including John Demjanjuk, and Israeli writer and Roth friend Aharon Appelfeld,the nervous breakdown Roth suffered following a difficult knee operation (described in the prologue) actually occurred (cf. Claire Bloom's Leaving a Doll's House). To confuse matters even more, Roth has claimed in public that he really did undergo a top-secret spy mission for the Israelis, as the book states.
Plot: The author, recovering from a mental breakdown caused by the dangerous painkiller Halcion, travels to Israel to interview colleague Aharon Appelfeld for The New York Times Review of Books. He discovers, however, that another Philip Roth has gotten there before him and has been preaching anti-Israeli doctrine in his name. According to the other Roth, the Jews must abandon the concept of Zionism and return to their homelands in Europe before Israel disgraces the entire religion. Roth grows upset that his name is being used for political purposes — especially political purposes with which he doesn’t agree — and goes out to confront his doppleganger. He discovers that the “fake” Philip Roth is virtually indistinguishable from the “real” Philip Roth, and that people are buying the ruse. The imposter refuses to back down from his impersonation, claiming to be a martyr for the cause of Jewish Diasporism.
The views espoused by “Philip Roth” quickly come to the attention of both Israeli and Palestinian intelligence, and soon the author can no longer distinguish reality from subterfuge. As a high-profile Jewish figure, Roth begins to suspect that he is being ensnared by both Israelis and Palestinians into working for their causes. Innocent encounters begin to seem like carefully crafted plots designed to sway his opinion.
To top things off, this all occurs at a time when tensions couldn’t be greater between Arab and Jew. Israel is involved in the trial of John Demjanjuk, a Cleveland auto worker accused of being the notorious Nazi torturer Ivan the Terrible. The legitimacy of Jewish and Palestinian claims about Israel rests on whether Demjanjuk is really a monster finally being brought to justice or a poor immigrant being subjected to a sham trial.
For Roth, the final truth to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that there isn’t any. Israel is both a paradise for the Jews and a nightmare for the Palestinians; Demjanjuk is both a model American citizen and a Nazi butcher; and the Israeli intelligence agency the Mossad is both manipulative and deceitful as well as a noble institution worthy of working for. If there is any simpler truth, the author concludes, it cannot be deduced from the evidence that is now before us.
Review: Roth is a narcissist with much to be narcissistic about. This book is an amazing combination of Roth's extraordinary writing ability and his obsessive naval gazing. Indeed, without obviously intending irony, he calls his "double" in the story--the "other" Phillip Roth-- Moishe Pippic, which translates as Moses Bellybutton. No phrase could better capture Roth's grandiose self-image and obsessive self-examination; one Phillip Roth wasn't enough to sate him, so he has two of them in the book.
And yet you (or at least I) are reading it. The reader can just feel Roth saying, "Grandiose? You don't seem to have anything better to do with your time than read my self-exploration, so who are you to judge?"
This novel has a plot, but that plot--while immensely clever--serves mostly as a very thin wafer on which Roth serves thick essays on Israel and jewishness from a variety of perspectives. We hear from arab intelligentsia, jewish "diasporists," Nazi war criminals, children of Nazi war criminals, holocaust survivors, Israeli secret agents and, most of all, two Phillip Roths looking in the mirror. Roth's conception of the thoughts and diatribes of all but the latter are beautifully written--angry and thought-provoking-- and make the book worthwhile if you are interested in that sort of thing, but not so interested that you will be upset by some of the frankly offensive views portrayed in some of their rants.
The plot is too thin, the self-obsession too great, and the interesting bits too specialized.
Opening Line: "For legal reasons, I have had to alter a number of facts in this book."
Closing Line: "This confession is false."
Quotes: "You are that marvelous, unlikely, most magnificent phenomenon, the truly liberated Jew. The Jew who is not accountable. The Jew who finds the world perfectly to his liking. The comfortable Jew. The happy Jew. Go. Choose. Take. Have. You are the blessed Jew condemned to nothing, least of all to our historical struggle." "No. I said, "not a hundred percent true. I am a happy Jew condemned to nothing who is condemned, however, from time to time to listen to superior Jewish windbags reveling in how they are condemned to everything. Is the show finally over?"
Rating: Horrible. Way too wordy, boring, and narcissistic.

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