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Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Finkler Question

The Finkler Question, winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize, focuses on one Julian Treslove, a man standing at the crossroad of life not at all sure about which direction he should turn.  He is not happy about where he is standing, that much he does know - and he senses that, in order to salvage the remainder of his life, he needs a complete makeover.

Treslove, twice married, abandoned both wives so early in the marriages that he barely knows his two sons.  He once worked as a radio programmer for the BBC but now resents the experience so much that he can barely stomach walking past his old building.  Now he works, when the agency can find it for him, as a celebrity lookalike at parties, not exactly a step up from being a BBC producer.  Treslove does not know who he is, much less who he wants to be.  His life has lost its meaning.

Even Teslove’s oldest friendship seems to be based more on rivalry and competition than on companionship.  Sam Finkler, popular author and television personality, makes his living selling shallow, but bestselling, self-help books.  Finkler, a Jew whose wife has recently died, is so rabidly anti-Zionist that he helps form a group of likeminded Jews who meet once a week to declare their shame in public.  When the Treslove and Finkler reconnect with elderly professor Libor Sevick, who has just lost his wife of more than fifty years, Treslove, as the single non-Jew in the trio, feels more disconnected from life than ever. 

In his great desire to belong, and to create a new identity for himself, Treslove decides to recreate himself in the image of a contemporary London Jew.  He immerses himself into the lives of his two friends, learns Yiddish, and even finds a Jewish lover who is in charge of the soon-to-opened Museum of Anglo-Jewish Culture (located down the road from the Abbey Road recording studio made famous by the Beatles).  Julian Treslove is determined to become “a Finkler,” and author Howard Jacobson uses Treslove’s quest  to explore the whole “Finkler Question” and what it means to be a modern day “Finkler.”

Is The Finkler Question worthy of the Man Booker Prize?  In the sense that a tragicomedy like this one can so successfully explore the meaning of identity to the offspring of a people who have been so misunderstood, and have suffered so much personal violence over the past 2,000 years, yes it does.  That said, this is not an easy novel to like.  Its two main characters, Treslove and Finkler, are equally unlikable and unsympathetic – both are, in fact, more fools than not.  Too, despite Jacobson’s reputation as a writer who uses a good bit of humor in his novels, I found very little of it in evidence here.  I suspect that might be because it is of the “inside baseball” type of humor that only those having grown up in the Jewish faith can fully understand and appreciate. 

I do appreciate the insights Jacobson offers into contemporary Judaism as it is practiced and lived today,  but I am yet to answer the “Man Booker Prize question” even in my own mind.

Rated at: 3.5
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