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Identity Probed from the Outside In ... Slightly Softened by Humor
on June 28, 2013
"Who is like the Lord our God, Who dwells on high, Who humbles Himself to behold The things that are in the heavens and in the earth?" -- Psalm 113:5-6 (NKJV)
Calling The Finkler Question a funny book is like calling Hamlet a humorous play ... just because it has the gravediggers commenting on a skull. There certainly is humor in The Finkler Question, humor designed to soften what otherwise would be too much angst and gloom for many readers to sustain.
So if you are looking for a good old belly laugh, look elsewhere.
If you want to learn more about identity, this is your book. Howard Jacobson has succeeded in providing the kind of multi-layer story that delivers new insights each time it is reread or thought about again. While on the surface the main story line is about a life-changing event that causes a Gentile to see himself differently, the application of that story is much broader.
While I'm sure many people who are Jewish or know much about Jewish life will point out the inaccuracies in what is portrayed, I think that they will miss what I take to be the author's point in choosing to do so: identity looks much different from without than from within. For that reason, Jewish people will probably "get" more of the book's intended message ... to the extent that they don't take the details as an attempt to portray their own lives and beliefs.
The book also has much to say about the forms of identity that form our foundation, contrasting identity through birth, connection to others, relative to others, and in contrast to others. Through the story's development, it's clear that Mr. Jacobson favors seeking a firmer foundation based on a sense of the uniqueness that defines a person.
It's not an easy read. You have to chew on it. I took the book in small doses and felt rewarded for doing so over four weeks. Stop whenever you've got a mouthful and don't start again until that mouthful is swallowed and digested.
Before you leave the book behind, reflect on who you are? Who is that person?
Bravo, Mr. Jacobson!