You know how sometimes, usually on late night TV, you'll stumble across an arty film, sometimes in black and white, often subtitled and in a foreign language, and when you get to the end (or however long your viewing threshold may be), you'll think - what was that all about ?! Well, that was almost how I felt at the end of Jew. I'm totally convinced that it would be a fantastic book to discuss at university tutorials or in book groups but I know that a lot of it went straight over my head.
Before you even get to the opening paragraph, you know that this is a book that sets out to shock or at least make you feel vaguely uncomfortable. The title Jew, the menacing skinhead photo, the arty-slash-pornographic drawings on the inside front cover and at the start of each chapter ... although I'm not sure the author would have actually had much input or if that is purely down to the publishing team !
The basic plotline is incredibly simple and promises great things. As the blurb on the back of the book says, "A man regains consciousness to find himself naked in a mass grave, with no idea who he is. His thought is survival, but in a religious war survival depends on knowing which side you are on. Donning another man's military uniform, he drives off and enters a nearby town to discover that the occupying soldiers have been waiting for someone very much like him. Suddenly, he finds himself in power. His first act is to save a woman about to be murdered by soldiers. The woman, as it turns out, has a history with the man, and knows more of him than he knows of himself, or does she actually have the right man ?"
The basic premise - two brothers who look the same but who have different mothers of different religions and find themselves on opposing sides in an inexplicable war - could be explosive, but I felt that the heavy symbolism slightly detracted from the emotion and drama.
I don't know if I interpreted this the right way but I took the opening scenes to be evocative of Nazi prisoner-of-war camps and their horrific treatment of the Jews but with the roles reversed. Again, I'm not totally convinced I was reading the right things into the symbolism but I take the meaning to be that atrocious disdain for life and senseless barbarity is a more universal part of humanity (or should that be inhumanity) than a classic retelling of Nazi-Germany would suggest. Oooh I feel like I'm back in my English Lit student days ! There were some nice delicate and almost poetic touches, like the image of the ants working together in harmony to methodically strip meat off the dead bodies being subtly contrasted with the humans who fail to cooperate and help each other, but I ultimately found that overall, the book was too harsh and depersonalised for us to fully appreciate the writing.
The author is however highly skilled at writing concise but emotionally-charged descriptions that are at times repulsive but also haunting. In the opening scenes, his evocation of the man's clumsy, desperate attempts to extract himself from the mountain of dead bodies pays such attention to details that the reader mentally finds himself in there with him, sharing in his revulsion and incomprehension. This continuing sense of incomprehension is vital to the plotline but can act as a barrier to the reader fully empathising with the characters. Who is the good guy ? Who is the bad guy ? Or is everybody just as bad as each other ?
The total lack of personification of the characters - not one character has a name - means that we have to take them as symbols, but the million dollar question is, how are we to interpret them ? Jew is a highly uncomfortable and at times profoundly disturbing read, but one that will certainly make you think long after you have turned the final page.
star rating : 3/5 (4/5 for reading groups - you could get some fantastic discussions going after reading this)
RRP : £12.00
Hardcover: 160 pages
Publisher: No Exit Press (22 July 2010)
Publisher: No Exit Press (22 July 2010)