He knocks three times with the knuckles of his clenched fist. There is movement behind the door, no more than what you’d expect. “Dos bist du?” asks a raspy voice in a language that isn’t Russian. “Poshel v pizdu,” answers one of the nineteen-year-olds in Russian. Sadykov and the boys don’t know the meaning of the question Dos bist du? Why would they know that these words mean, “Is this you?” But, of course, the Russian words “poshel v pizdu,” translated literally as “go in the cunt” or “fuck off,” rhyme with this enigmatic question. It’s a dialogue of sorts: “Dos bist du?” “Poshel v pizdu.” It’s more than a rhyme. It’s a question and an answer…. “Otkroyte!” Sadykov knocks again. Open the door! “Ikh farshtey. Nit dos bist du.” The meaning of this exchange escapes Sadykov, but it merits unpacking.
Had there been a Yiddish-speaking audience present, it would have surely rolled with laughter. Try to imagine the situation described above as a vaudeville skit: They come to arrest an old Yid. They knock on the door. “Is that you?” the old man asks in Yiddish. The goons answer in juicy Russian. (The rhyme: “Dos bist du?” / “Poshel v pizdu.”) “I see,” responds the old man. “It’s not you.”
In this scene, the audience never learns whom the old man refers to as “you,” but it’s a safe guess that he is not anticipating the arrival of Lieutenant Narsultan Sadykov and his boys. You can imagine what the audience would do. They would emit tears and saliva. They would slap their knees. They would turn beet red from elevation of blood pressure and constriction of air supply. Alas, at 2: 59 a.m. February 24, 1953, a Yiddish-speaking audience is not in attendance at 1/ 4 Chkalov Street, apartment forty.
Paul Goldberg’s debut novel of historical fiction, The Yid, is a critically acclaimed, daring, original, and eminently readable book which manages to weave together Soviet history, Yiddish culture, and Shakespeare into a heady and unique brew. Filled with black humour, wit and insight, The Yid traces what happens when three Soviet secret police come to arrest a washed up old Jewish theatre performer for imaginary crimes and meet unexpected resistance. Soon Levinson, the aforementioned actor, has gathered around himself a gang of unlikely heroes who, finding themselves in the untenable situation of being wanted by the USSR, decide to up the ante and assassinate Comrade Stalin himself.
The book is a trip inside the brutal, unjust world of Stalinist era USSR, and more deeply, inside the life-killing, dehumanizing machines of night that human beings have built again and again. Levinson and his merry crew slip through the cracks and try to resist, creating a story at once reminiscent of a Purim shpil and dark 20th century satires like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Despite the humour, the novel is also unflinchingly violent and bleak at times. The Chicago Tribune accurately noted that the novel is “as hilarious as it is appalling, and vice versa.” It offers a kind of curious comic relief in times like ours, at once reminding us how fortunate we are, even in the era of Trump, and how precious the freedoms we have gained, as well as acting therapeutically somewhere between a comedy number and a blues song.
Paul Goldberg. The Yid: A Novel. Picador: NY. 2016.