13 May 2007

More on Chabon's frozen chosen

Recently I posted a link to the New York Times review of Michael Chabon's book, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, a detective novel set in the imaginary Yiddish-speaking Sitka, Alaska.

Here's an interview from JBooks.

Chabon, who worked on the book for about four years, answers some great questions about his use of Yiddish in this "alternative-history-detective-love-story" about mame-loshn (Yiddish) speaking Jews in Alaska. He wondered "what the world would be like if most of its Jews lived in a place where people just sort of forgot about them and left them alone."

When he began the novel, Chabon says his 75-word core of Yiddish had "to do with sex, bodily functions, the invoking of woe and pain, some bits of ironic praise, and a lot of words useful for telling your baby you think it is cute; but I had the sound of the language deep, deep in my ear."

He grew up hearing spoken Yiddish, "I can hear the lively mysterious business of people speaking this impenetrable language that seems to be built entirely on contention, irony, and bitter-but-genuine laughter."

Chabon read books on the language, studied Uriel Weinreich's dictionary and grammar book, among others. He taught himself to read "very, very slowly and painfully," and read Yiddish literature in English translation, listed to songs and tapes of speakers, and he tried "to write the novel as if it had been written in Yiddish by a Yiddish writer of the present day."

Translating some essential phrases literally, Chabon says, to hold onto their "chewiness," a character says "he's been banging me a teakettle about it all day," and he hopes the reader who doesn’t know the phrase, hock mir a tchainek, will get it. He used some real Yiddish criminal slang, and made up a lot.

The interviewer asks Chabon if he found himself "confronting Israel as one possible model for the Jewish encounter with political sovereignty?"

Says Chabon:
Please, like I don’t have enough tsuris without having to create imaginary antagonists and then write dialogue for them! The closer the world in my novel comes to feeling like a real world, a possible world, the more it will be, like our world, open to interpretation. Anyway, I would argue with you that in fact it’s the utter lack of sovereignty of my Jews that haunts them, teases them, dooms them. I could imagine an ardent Zionist who might read my novel and say, “See what happens when there’s no Israel! See what a mess those Arabs made of Palestine!” I could also imagine him telling me to drop dead. But I won’t, okay?

Read the complete interview for interesting insights.

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