J by Howard Jacobson

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Reviewed by Max Dunbar

Milan Kundera wrote that ‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’ Winston Smith, of course, worked as an editor in the Ministry of Love, where collective memory (through newspapers and other media) is constantly being altered to confirm the ruling party’s vision of the past. Real life equivalents throughout history and across the globe seek to rewrite the history books or at least revise their more inconvenient passages. For the will to power, an ignorance of history, a refusal to learn, is vital: every day is Year Zero.

Howard Jacobson’s new novel imagines a future Britain where forgetting is central to society. The country is recovering from a massacre of British Jews so horrific that it is never spelt out. In the narrative it is always referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, in ominous capitals. A mass renaming ceremony, ‘Call Me Ishmael,’ followed:

a month-long street party, young and old dancing with one another in the parks, strangers embracing, people saying goodbye to their old names as they waited for the official documents that would apprise them of their new.

The propaganda of the day is a variation of ‘nothing to see here’: tickers running along newsprint exhort you to ‘LET SLEEPING DOGS LIE, THE OVEREXAMINED LIFE IS NOT WORTH LIVING, YESTERDAY IS A LESSON WE CAN LEARN ONLY BY LOOKING TO TOMORROW’. Heirlooms are banned. Social media is dead. The digital angle is interesting because the internet is our popular collective memory. People have lost their jobs over resurfaced Facebook photos from a compromised youth. Because of this, the European ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling was welcomed by many – although free speech campaigners warn that this opens the door to web censorship by powerful frauds. (And Padraig Reidy argues that ‘censorship is exactly what this is. It’s not book burning, but it is the deliberate concealment of information that the public has every right to know, whether the subject finds it embarrassing or not.’) But Jacobson hints that the social media outrage factory played a decisive role in WHAT HAPPENED – on occasion referred to as ‘Twitternacht’.

‘I belong to that school which believes that a novelist should shut his mouth and not have opinions,’ Jacobson told the Irish Independent. But it’s clear that is informed by Jacobson’s experience of contemporary politics. During the last Gaza war, in 2009, Jacobson wrote a passionate and lucid essay about the eruption of anti-Semitic propaganda and demonstrations that accompanied the conflict. With tensions in the Middle East rising again, Britain and Europe have suffered more assaults, boycotts and demonstrations, most of which cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as mere ‘criticism of Israel’. (For example supermarkets have been forced to close by demonstrators apparently because they stock Israeli goods.) Put this to a contemporary anti-Zionist and he will say: it’s different this time, because we’re progressives. But the young men of the SS no doubt thought they were being progressive, overthrowing Junker aristocrats in the name of the People’s Community. Jacobson is an old campaigner and understands the darkness in self-righteousness and moral superiority. His O’Brien is an arts professor, who pays tribute to ‘my fellow professionals – vice chancellors of conscience-stricken universities and professors of the benign arts, painters, writers, actors, journalists, junior untenured academic staff, without whom the campaign to drive them from the face of the earth, to make of them vagabonds and fugitives, a pariah people cursed in every mouth, would not have been conducted in so civilised a manner.’

All this is the grim backdrop to a love affair between middle-aged recluse Kevern Cohen and the beautiful orphan Ailinn Solomons. Their relationship is the crux of the novel and the dialogue between this couple, the way they get to know each other, is handled with wit and sensitivity and disproves the old cliché that happiness writes white. (In particular, the rough fisherman’s town where Kevern lives is brought to life in all its candid sensuality: ‘People who have lived for aeons within sound of crashing seas,’ Jacobson notes, ‘and sight of screaming seabirds spearing mackerel, take sex for granted. It’s townspeople who find it disarranging.’) But the shadow of the disaster hangs over them forever. A visit to the capital, now called the ‘Necropolis’, reveals that this pogrom has done what nothing else in history could: crash London’s house prices. ‘In the Necropolis the divorce rates were higher than anywhere else. So were domestic shootings. Men urinated openly in the streets.’ Pursued by a zealous oddball cop, their love story is subsumed into a dark twist, which in its way makes Jacobson’s novel as chilling as darkness at noon – the rage of an old wise man who sees history beginning to repeat itself.

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Max Dunbar lives in Yorkshire. He blogs here and can be found on twitter as @MaxDunbar1

Howard Jacobson, J: A Novel, (Jonathan Cape, London, 2014) 978-0224101974, Hardback, 336 pages.

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