The Best Book of 2011!

on Saturday, January 8, 2011
Fantastic. We're just one week into January and I've already read the best book I am going to read this year. Stuff that. It's one of the best books I'm ever going to read. Right now it's sitting comfortably at number four, trumped only by The Trial, I Am The Cheese and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. And, if I disregard the time-and-place aspect of the Cormier and Chabon, it probably ranks at number two. Holy crap.

Finally back in print after far too long an absence, The Brothers Ashkenazi by I. J. Singer has reduced me to a semi-coherent mess of sycophantic dithering. For those not in the know, I. J. was the elder brother of Nobel laureate, short story master and dodgy misogynist Isaac Bashevis Singer. And however good I. B. was at the short form, I. J. is even better at the epic. The Brothers Ashkenazi is the sort of thing Dostoevsky would have written had he lived in Lodz and synthesised (by way of osmosis) with Dickens all the while subjecting himself to an ascetic lifestyle and a prolonged hunger strike. Owing more to the grand Russian tradition than its Yiddish brethren, The Brothers Ashkenazi eschews both sly humour and shtetl fabulism for cold, harsh realism, continually punching the reader in the face with home truths. I.J. was clearly a bitter man. As the friend who recommended it to me pointed out, he had lived through and been burnt by numerous regime changes as well as political upheavals and religious tumult. His message, therefore, is simple. Politics is shit. Religion is shit. Humanity, when you strip away the posturing, is shit. Forget your happy endings, I. J. tells it like it really is.

Simcha Meir (Max) and Jacob Bunim Ashkenazi are two very different twins on a similar trajectory toward wealth and power in turn-of-the-century Lodz. Max is lauded from an early age as a genius, but his business acumen hardens his heart. He is willing to crush whoever stands in the way of his success whether it be his parents, friends, wife or even his brother. Jacob Bunim, on the other hand, is slow witted and lazy, but a real mensch. He relishes all that is decadent, and people flock to him for his outgoing, ebullient ways. Whereas Max hunts success like a predator stalking its prey, success falls on Jacob in spite of himself. As the years roll on, the two find themselves locked in an often cruel game of one-upmanship, each vying for the position of Industrial king of Lodz. It is ugly and tragic, but utterly compelling.

Bubbling under the surface throughout, until it explodes in spectacularly horrible fashion, is a deep vein of political and religious unrest. Pogroms, strikes, revolutions (both Russian Revolutions get a look in, as does the tail end of the Industrial Revolution) and national capitulations pepper the saga, increasing both in frequency and brutality as the tale progresses. Singer is not afraid to depict it all in graphic detail which makes for some truly harrowing and uncomfortable moments. Yet, none of the historical details feel laboured or preachy. They always serve a purpose, not just in the background, but at the forefront of the narrative action.

I don't want to give away too much of this incredible novel. Nothing I tell you about it could possibly do it justice. Instead, I am begging you to read it. Each and every one of you. Personally. I will, however, just say this. Much is made of Kafka's prophetic powers. But if you want to find true prescience, a book that could clearly see what was to come, this 1937 classic towers above anything else you are ever likely to read.


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