One of my friends, Aran, just started playing Disco Elysium, the game my son and I have been playing together for months. It’s a role-playing game set in the run-down neighbourhood of an occupied city in an alternate world. You play a detective for the local police investigating a murder who is in such a low point of their alcohol addiction that you’re experiencing complete memory loss. Anyway, Aran mentioned that the game reminded him of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and that it was one of his favourite books. So, I decided to read it.
My first impression was that the book isn’t all that much like Disco Elysium. It’s set in an alternative-universe Sitka, Alaska. Apparently in our universe, during World War II, there was a plan floated by the US State Department to relocate Jewish refugees from the Holocaust to Sitka, in order to secure and develop the region. In the book’s universe, that plan was implemented, and a city of thousands or maybe millions of Yiddish-speaking Jews live in Sitka and surrounding islands into the 1980s or 1990s. Meanwhile, the tiny Zionist colony in Palestine has disappeared after the end of the British Mandate; this is a world with no Israel.
The centrepiece of the plot is a detective story around the death of a heroin-addicted chess prodigy in a flophouse called the Zamenhof Hotel (all the signs are in Esperanto). The divorced detective Meyer Landsman who lives on the same floor in the same flophouse catches the case and pursues it further than anyone in the area wants him to. His boss and ex-wife tries to keep him from going to far; his cousin, the half-Tlingit, half-Jewish Berko Shemets, is also his partner.
The murder mystery plays out over the background of the reversion of the Sitka refuge to Alaskan sovereignty in a few months time. Various factions within the city need to find another place to get sanctuary. It’s clear how dangerous this is; a world without an Israel is one without a safe refuge for Jews. People are packing and applying for visas in Australia and Madagascar.
Spoiler: the story ends with the foundation of a Jewish colony in Palestine and the destruction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem by a terrorist bombing. The people of Sitka exult at the opportunity to emigrate to Jerusalem, although many are uncomfortable with the violent means used to secure the new homeland.
I found the murder mystery interesting and the characters pretty compelling. I listened to the book on Audible, and the narrator Peter Riegert does a great job conveying the characters from American adventurers to Tlingit cops. I found the underlying story about Israel pretty hard to grapple with; an Israel that is both absent from the world, and then brought into the world, feels almost as if it’s an inevitability across timelines.
I’d re-read. I liked getting the recommendation!