Roth Contemplates His Pipik : OPERATION SHYLOCK: A Confession By Philip Roth ; (Simon & Schuster: $23; 398 pp.)
“Mischief,” Philip Roth writes partway through his new novel, “is how some Jews get involved in living.” He quotes his friend, the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, but it is hard not to think that Appelfeld was talking about Roth.
Almost more than the stories they tell, Roth’s recent novels--particularly “The Counterlife” and “Deception"--have been about the uncertain and illusory relationship he sets up between himself and his characters. Each book gives us a multiplicity of fictional Roths, directly or by means of alter egos, so that the teller and his tale keep changing places in a Pirandello-like contradance or pea-and-shell game.
It is disconcerting, and never more so than in “Operation Shylock.” It can be intrusive and self-absorbed. Look at me, not at my story, Roth seems to say, and he keeps butting in to switch places with it.
Yet this is only partly arbitrary. Method and story are joined. Always, Roth presents being Jewish as the most intense and extreme way of being human; and Jewish self-consciousness--morbid, comic, inspired--as a heightened form of human self-consciousness. But staring at things too hard causes double vision. Staring at yourself too hard fractures your sense of yourself.
“Shylock” gives us two fractured visions or, if you like, quadruple vision. Diaspora Jew confronts Israeli Jew, a theme introduced in “Counterlife” and now lavishly played out. At times, in fact, there are three double visions. An Arab voice is heard to complain with the scintillating lucidity that Roth is master of, but more faintly, as if even Roth could not quite handle sextuple.
A reader risks disappearing into his complexities. There is the author’s suggestion--dangled, withdrawn, dangled, and very quietly canceled--that the story really took place and that its protagonist really does sign his royalty checks “Philip Roth.” Occasionally, a genuine fact subverts the phantasmagoric account.
“Shylock” begins with a famous author named Philip who visits Israel in a state of Halcion-induced disorientation. There he meets a man named Philip Roth. The latter is urging Israelis of European descent to move back to a Europe that eagerly awaits them. (“Our Jews are back!” jubilant Polish crowds will cry out at the railroad station.) Unless they undertake this second Diaspora, he argues, there will be a second Holocaust, a mutually exterminating nuclear war with the Arabs.
Roth Two looks like Roth One. He wears the same tweed jacket with a button missing, fervently admires his books, and loyally detests his critics. Roth One naturally detests him and the confusing publicity he is creating. To distance himself, he gives his usurper the Yiddish sobriquet for an obstreperous child: Moishe Pipik.
Some distancing! Pipik means bellybutton, and that, of course, you can’t cut off. Pipik is a fighter in the civil war that goes on inside Roth. Arguing that Jewish culture and ethics have been formed in the Diaspora, and that Israelis are coarse vulgarians, he flatters Roth’s own Diaspora art. Pipik is a mad cartoon, of course, and the madness is reinforced by his ranting pleas to Roth not to disavow him. Pipik’s warm and wholehearted Gentile lover, Jinx, adds to the rant by arguing that not only is Pipik an idealist, he is dying of cancer as well.
Guilt as thick as fuel oil powers Pipik’s claim upon the narrator. A second claim is made by Ziad, a Palestinian-American schoolmate from Chicago who has settled on the West Bank to mourn his father’s confiscated property and “to hate.” Ziad’s pleas mirror Pipik’s; he, too, argues that the Jews in Israel have lost their soul and become oppressors. Taking Roth to be the author of the Second Diaspora plan, he attempts to recruit him for the Palestinian cause.
A third claim is addressed to the part of Roth that, despite his vulnerability to Pipik’s and Ziad’s arguments, cannot reject Israel. A Mr. Smilesburger first appears as a rich, doddering old Israeli who, seeming to take him for Pipik, gives him an enormous check to advance the cause. In fact, he is a high-ranking officer of Mossad, the Israeli equivalent of the CIA. He has Roth briefly kidnaped and then, appealing to his loyalty, assigns him to go to Athens to infiltrate a group of dovish Greek Jews with ties to the PLO.
These are, of course, the same people that Ziad wants him to meet. Everything in “Shylock"--Mossad’s name for the Athens project--has a double face. Smilesburger practices agentry upon Roth and so, much less efficiently, does Ziad. Yet each embodies an authentic moral and political position. Their respective monologues are passionate, moving and impaled upon paradox. They display the author at his most trenchant.
Smilesburger gives a searing defense of Israeli hawkishness. The Palestinians are essentially innocent, and the Israelis are guilty of their displacement, he affirms. He mocks Roth and other doves as hypocrites who want to have both Israel and their moral virtue. Hawks and doves will be hanged together if the Arabs win, he says. At the war-crimes trial, he will not argue the Holocaust or Biblical claims. He will say: “I did what I did to you because I did what I did to you.”
It is raison d’etat or, in the Hebrew phrase, ein brera (no other choice). Only Roth could make its advocate so stark and so human. As for Ziad’s argument--that Israel has used the Holocaust to justify its suppression of the Palestinians--it comes across in a witty and original construction, but less vividly. Yet Ziad’s present-day pain humanizes him, standing as it does against the inevitable abstraction of a far greater pain that is 40 years old.
Throughout the book, there are scenes from the trial of John Demjanjuk, the alleged Ivan the Terrible who killed thousands of Jews at Treblinka. Ziad contrasts the meticulousness and openness of the trial with the arbitrary and part-hidden violence used against the Palestinians. The Demjanjuk trial, he insists, is used to keep the Holocaust alive. The Roth character protests the incomparable difference in magnitude between the two cases.
The author is not after balances, though. “Shylock” is his characteristic headlong series of charges over the broken ground of unresolvable contradiction. When he is dealing with the contradictions between Israelis and Arabs, and between the Israeli Jews and those outside, the charges are exhilarating and as revealing in their rich paradox as anything he has done.
There are long stretches, though, where Roth’s self-absorption is so thick and extended as to screen out light, air and interest. The bright use of Pipik as a quixotic Diasporist and as one of Roth’s alter egos dims in the long nighttime monologues where the alter drops off. Even weaker and more inert is Roth’s treatment of Pipik’s lover and defender, the Polish-American Jinx, who bills herself as a “recovering anti-semite,” 12 steps and all. His paradox fails him; as their talk drags on and on, she becomes his sexy, long-winded, shiksa foil. “Shylock” is less a novel than a dramatic monologue that alternately spurts above and sinks under its own voice.