(1966), a work of historical fiction by Bernard Malamud, offers a closely-researched, but fictionalized story of Menahem Mendel Beilis, a Russian Jew who was levied a murder charge by the Russian Empire, which dubiously alleged that he engaged in a religious blood libel against the child of a Christian. Though Beilis was ultimately exonerated, the trial catalyzed discourse internationally about anti-Semitic state policies in Russia and the rest of Europe. Malamud represents Beilis as the character Yakov Bok, a Jewish purveyor of odd jobs and services. The novel won multiple awards, including a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, but also became a subject of controversy after several of Beilis’s surviving family members accused Malamud of virtually copying excerpts from Beilis’s own 1926 memoir. These claims led to no legal determination, but have sparked additional discourse about the nature of plagiarism in the context of fictionalized biographies.
The novel begins in 1911. Yakov Bok lives illegally in Kiev, having never furnished the legal paperwork to gain a residency status. During the week of Passover that spring, a Christian boy is murdered in Kiev. In a rushed investigation fraught with the Russian police’s social biases against Jews, Bok is chosen as one of the suspects and thrown in jail without due process. Though he has not even been charged, he is refused visitation rights and a lawyer. While in jail, Bok is frequently questioned and given a gauntlet of physical and emotional abuse. His interrogation goes well beyond the reasonable bounds of the case at hand, pressing him for information on his political, ideological, and social affinities. Though Bok asserts that he is not a highly political or religious man, the xenophobic police refuse to believe him because he is Jewish, which they associate with political greed and religious extremism.
Bok spends months in prison, still without any formal charge or evidence against him. He uses this time to reflect on his life, which has often been melancholy. He considers his place in the world and the fact that xenophobia and political power often negate states’ notions of human rights. Several friends vouch for his character, attempting different strategies to get him out of jail, but they are arrested, harassed, or threatened by the Russian government. Eventually, the father of Bok’s wife pays off a guard to let them talk to each other. The guard is caught and thrown in prison on a charge of subverting the course of law. Another man, Magistrate Bibikov, visits Bok, is caught and imprisoned as a state enemy after the Russian government exaggerates his involvement in political subversion. Bibikov is placed in his own solitary cell, where he falls into despair and kills himself.
Eventually, Bok secures permission for his estranged wife to visit him, who separated from him well before he was arrested. He learns that the police coerced her to visit, bestowing her with visiting rights in a scheme to get his written confession to the murder. Recognizing the scheme, Bok rejects the coercion of a confession, reasserting his innocence. Meanwhile, he finds out that his wife is expecting another man’s child and that the father has died. Recognizing the emotional strife his wife is going through, Bok forgives her and agrees to act as the baby’s father so that the Jewish community validates their standing.
The novel ends two years after Bok is sent to prison. The Russian bureaucracy finally gives him a trial, allowing him to obtain a lawyer. The lawyer sympathizes with his plight, acknowledging that Russia has a scapegoating problem that leads to the incrimination of Jews. He also tells him that many Jews who are currently free in Russia are afraid of a future politically motivated extermination in Russia. As he travels to the courthouse, Bok fantasizes that he is speaking to Tsar Nicholas II, Russia’s former ruler. He excoriates the Tsar for enforcing the regime of scapegoating and hatred towards the Jewish people. Protestors intercept Bok’s police convoy, and one of his guards is injured. He meditates on the irony
that he no longer believes in the possibility of being apolitical.The Fixer
distills early twentieth-century discourse about the Russian state’s oppression of the Jewish people into the attitudinal shift of a character who stands in for one of its historical, highly publicized victims. Portraying the man’s essential innocence as a footnote painted over by political corruption, Malamud vindicates the use of individual political voices to foreclose futures that might squelch basic human rights and dignities.