Howard Jacobson’s Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Finkler Question, is a 21st century version of T. S. Eliot’s renowned poem, The Waste Land. Like the Eliot poem, The Finkler Question presents a seeker whose quest is quite a futile one because he is on the wrong track, if not on the wrong turf itself.
Julian Treslove, like Eliot’s protagonist, has his fortune foretold by a gypsy woman. If the seeker in The Waste Land had to encounter the fortune of death by water, which holds the mythological promise of regeneration, Treslove’s fortune is to encounter a woman probably named Juno. The encounter involves a danger too. This prediction was made when Treslove was a schoolboy on holiday in Barcelona.
At the age of 49 Treslove has a rather dangerous encounter with a woman near the BBC office where Treslove used to work; he was mugged by a woman. She steals not only his credit cards and other valuable things but also his identity. She calls him a Jew, or at least Treslove thinks she did. It shakes him up radically. He begins his quest for identity. Is he a Jew? Can he be one? Is he meant to be one?
His friends are Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik, both of whom are Jews. Finkler used to be a kind of hero to Treslove at school. He was close enough to Finkler to have had a look at his penis that was circumcised in the Jewish tradition. He admired Finkler’s physical appearance as well as intelligence.
Libor was a teacher of both Treslove and Finkler. He was forced to give up teaching because in his classes he took too much interest in the affairs of the world rather than those in the textbooks. He joined the Czech department of World Service and also wrote biographies of beautiful Hollywood heroines. Even Marilyn Monroe would call him in the dead of the night to listen to his interesting conversation.
Malkie, an extremely beautiful woman, marries Libor much against her parents’ wish precisely because of the funny aspect in his character. He could make her laugh.
Finkler is a lecturer in philosophy. He too writes books, pop philosophy of sorts.
The Finkler Question tells the story of these three men, their relationships among themselves as well as with women, women other than their wives too. It also tells the story of the Jews in London as well as elsewhere. Religion, anti-Semitism, circumcision and the spiritual or moral aridity of the Eliotean Waste Land are all themes that appear almost inseparably from each other in the novel.
The Finkler Question is an intellectual novel. I wouldn’t recommend it to the casual reader who is looking for an easy read. There’s really no plot in it at all. It’s the story of some men who live a death-in-life kind of existence. It’s the story of the contemporary world with all its hollowness, spiritual, moral, intellectual and even aesthetic.
There’s a lot of humour throughout the novel. There are places that can make the reader burst out into loud laughter. For example, when Libor tells his wife Malkie that he finds her neck more graceful than a swan’s, she understands it as more graceful than a svontz, and svontz in Yiddish means penis.
Look at this conversation between Finkler and Treslove. Finkler says, “He [Pascal] said you might as well wager on God because that way, even if He doesn’t exist, you’ve nothing to lose. Whereas if you wager against God and He does exist…”
“You’re in the shit.”
“I wish I’d said that.”
“You will, Finkler.”
The novel is replete with allusions to many philosophers like Pascal in the above extract, literary writers like Shakespeare and T S Eliot, operas, and so on. It can mystify a casual reader. There are quite many Yiddish terms too, quite often not translated.
Does Julian Treslove’s quest end in any kind fulfilment? Does he understand what the Juno of his fortune tries to teach him? Does he realise the meaning of what one of his wives says that there’s “something missing” from him, though he is a good man? Does Finkler go beyond his self-assuredness [as opposed to Treslove’s total lack of it]? Does he realise the real meaning of religion? What’s the fate that may await a ‘good’ man like Libor who thinks that America and England are the best countries in the world?
The novel raises many such arresting questions. And answers them too as far as literature can provide answers. If you are looking for a challenging reading experience, I recommend this novel.