Monday, February 22, 2016

A British Dystopia

 'J' by Howard Jacobson. Clearly not a book I downloaded, but it was in the Kindle cloud, so by default, I scanned through it. I avoid 'popular' books for a reason- the genres aren't usually what I take to. No matter how good, I'm not going to be fond of the storyline. Thankfully, this book turns out to hold a story I like. (Reviews here, herehere and here.)

Didn't scan reviews or teasers about the book prior to reading. It was a few chapters in before I realized it was set in the future. A sort of quiet dystopia where the police will check that you don't own many 'heirlooms' beyond a century-old. Books seem to fall only into the populist genre and nothing thoughtful or philosophical. Jazz has died. Violence is on the rise.

Protagonist Kevern Cohen is a woodworker who lives alone in a small cottage in the seaside town of Port Reuben. He seems to be happy enough with the solitude, even as the townspeople are puzzled by him. He's fastidious about security and that rug in the doorway. He insists that it's to be rumpled instead of straightening it. Then he falls in love with Aillin Solomons who recently moved to Port Reuben with an older lady/aunt-figure, Ez (Esme Nussbaum). Aillin comes to live with him. They seem to have been thrown together somehow by an unknown strange person whom nobody seems to know. Between the pages, we learn that there's someone watching Kevern Cohen.

Before Chapter Six begins, 'The Allegory of the Frog' is a chilling reminder of maintaining one's defenses.

A frog was thrown into a pan of boiling water."What do you take me for?" the frog said, jumping smartly out. "Some kind of a shlemiel?"The following day the frog was lowered gently, even lovingly, into a pan of lukewarm water. As the temperature was increased, a degree at a time, the frog luxuriated, floating lethargically on his back with his eyes closed, imagining himself at an exclusive spa."This is the life," the frog said.Relaxed in ever joint, blissfully unaware, the frog allowed himself to be boiled to death.

Nothing is mentioned in detail about the calamity that brought about this dystopia. It's hinted at in bits and pieces. And finally, we know it's genocide. Look at the surnames of everyone. It's like an ironic policy of re-naming every family to erase memories of the past. I was initially a little baffled by the conversations of old letters, the secrecy of Christian nunneries and baptism, and suggestions of how the genocide is linked to religion too.

A dystopia where after genocide, books are banned, music is stifled and people's racial lines are blurred and indistinguishable from their features. Except Aillin and Kevern are the real McCoy, the race that has been wiped out in the calamity. And many forces bigger and more powerful than them both sought to wring a child or kill a child in this relationship. It's Aillin's lineage that's important, apparently. Something about the law of matrilineality. It's kinda chilling, and very thought-provoking.

The problem is Kevern. Not the facts about the bloodline. The facts are fine. So easy of confirmation, in fact, it is a wonder the Cohens were able to go on living for so long in Port Reuben unmolested. The problem is the flakiness. She isn't any longer sure that he is suitable. She puts this down to poor preparation. Those who have been making him their study have not done their job well. They have been looking through him, or past him, not at him. But it's her fault too. When she came down to Paradise Valley it was with a view to scrutinizing them both. 

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