Review by Natalia Holtzman
Bernard Malamud’s 1966 novel The Fixer is a stunning meditation on persecution, fear, imprisonment, and guilt. It won Malamud both the Pulitzer Prize and his second National Book Award. What’s startling now is how starkly relevant the novel is to contemporary society. The parallels it draws may not have been those that Malamud intended. Still, the book’s strength clearly lies in its openness to interpretation. It isn’t that the book can mean anything we’d like it to. Rather, the book seems to resonate at different social and cultural frequencies depending on the context in which it’s read.
Yakov Bok is the focus of the novel, for it’s his imprisonment that the novel details. Bok is a “fixer,” or handyman, a Jew from a small, poor shtetl outside Kiev. It is 1911. After his wife leaves him for another man, Bok decides to make a change: he heads for the larger world. He hasn’t been long in Kiev before he finds himself working for Nikolai Lebedev, a wealthy merchant and member of the anti-Semitic Black Hundreds Society.
Shortly thereafter a Russian boy is found dead, and Bok’s life begins to unravel. Bok has been working and living at a brickyard in a section of town in which Jews are not permitted to live. He has hidden his background from his employer, but he hasn’t escaped the suspicion of some brutish brickyard laborers. When the boy’s body is found in a cave near the brickyard, Bok is accused of draining his blood for use in a religious ceremony. He is then arrested, imprisoned, and held in mostly solitary confinement.
Most of the book deals with Bok’s confinement: he is held in execrable conditions. He freezes, starves, hallucinates. He is alone most of the time. Several years pass. His days are punctuated by bodily searches: the guards order him to strip, open his mouth, bend over, and so on. He is occasionally beaten.
Then there is the gathering of evidence against Yakov Bok. Malamud’s The Fixer is often compared to Kafka’s The Trial, and it isn’t difficult to see why: the accusations are bewildering, extensive, paranoid, and endless. “Why me?” Yakov asks himself, near the end of the novel, “for the ten thousandth time. Why did it have to happen to a poor, half-ignorant fixer? Who needed this kind of education?” Needless to say, he’s had time to consider the question. “He saw it as part personal fate—his various shortcomings and mistakes—but also as force of circumstance, though how you separated one from the other—if one really could—was beyond him.”
Near the book’s very beginning, Yakov’s father-in-law, Shmuel, had accompanied him to the edge of the shtetl, questioning him all the way. How could Yakov leave his home? How could he place himself in such danger? For Shmuel, the larger world, “full of churches and anti-Semites,” is synonymous with danger: “Why,” he asks Yakov, “should you walk straight into the hands of the Black Hundreds, may they hang by their tongues?” Yakov’s answer is poignant, not least because we know what his fate will be. “The truth of it is,” he says, “I’m a man full of wants I’ll never satisfy, at least not here. It’s time to get out and take a chance.”
Yakov doesn’t hesitate to see his personal fate as embroiled in a larger, more complicated history that has swept him along in its scapegoating. By leaving the shtetl he’d implicated himself: “Once you leave you’re out in the open; it rains and snows,” he thinks near the end. “It snows history, which means what happens to somebody starts in a web of events outside the personal.”
The night before his trial, Yakov dreams that Bibikov, the Investigating Magistrate who had believed in Yakov’s innocence, is sitting in his cell. “Your honor,” Yakov says to him, “I’ve had an extraordinary insight.” “You don’t say? What is it?” “Something in myself has changed. I’m not the same man I was. I fear less and hate more.”
For readers in 2015, who may have other, more contemporary examples of violence and injustice on their minds, The Fixer resonates in ways that its author probably couldn’t have foreseen. “I want to get acquainted with a bit of the world,” Yakov tells his father-in-law on his way out of the shtetl. “I’ve read a few books in recent years and it’s surprising what goes on that none of us knows about.”
Natalia Holtzman‘s work has appeared in DIAGRAM, Hobart, Redivider, B O D Y, and elsewhere. She previously reviewed Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet for Fig Tree Books. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and can be reached on Twitter via @NataliaHoltzman.