All the World’s a Stage, Including Stalin’s Russia

The Yid: A Novel, by Paul Goldberg, (Picador), 320 pages, release date 2 February, 2016

Paul Goldberg’s The Yid is such an original work that it’s hard to know where to begin with a review. Goldberg tells the stories of six friends—four of them Jewish—who cook up a plan to kill Stalin at the same time that Stalin is developing plans to expel (with some other kinds of elimination as well) all Jews from Russia. Solomon Levinson, who sets the novel’s action in motion is a former Red Russian fighter who later became an actor in the Moscow State Jewish Theater (no longer in existence). When members of the secret police arrive to arrest him, Levinson puts on the performance of a lifetime, first confounding, then killing them.

The action of the novel spirals out chaotically after this. Levinson’s friend Frederick Lewis, an African-American engineer from the US living in Russia to avoid the racism of his home country, agrees to help get rid of the bodies. Next the pair head to the home of their friend the doctor Aleksander Kogan, who owns a dacha where they hope to hide the bodies. As the novel progresses, they are joined by Kima, a young woman whose father was killed in a previous purge; Moisey Semyonovich, who like Levinson and Kogan is a former revolutionary; and Ol’ga Fydorovna, who was once a companion to radical poets, most now dead.

If this were all there was to the novel, it would still be a grand success of dark humor, but the omniscient narrator comments on the action, exploring and critiquing it the way a theater critic might approach a new play. In a sense, The Yid is a text that annotates itself. The badinage (in both Russian and Yiddish), while fit for a comedy of manners, has some of humanity’s deepest questions at its heart, with observations that are simultaneously heart-breaking and hilarious.

In short: The Yid is a remarkable work of fiction, genuinely unique (a word that gets thrown around far too often), offering a teetering balance of history, humor, and tragedy. Read it.

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