This was my introduction to Michael Chabon, inspired by the nonchalant remarks of Howard Jacobson (of Finkler fame). I had before only encountered Chabon on the periphery of my attention, mentioned by others in the distance, buried beneath other things which captured my interest.
Having no idea what to read as an introduction to Chabon’s work, I picked this one up in the library primarily because the title appealed to me and I found myself wondering what connection to Hitler’s Final Solution Chabon might be implying.
The book is described as a “story of detection” and on the surface it is clearly that, very much sculpted from the tradition of good ol’ Sherlock Holmes. The genre sits nicely with this text and I think that it allows Chabon to make some very perceptive social commentary specific to the time period which he describes.
While the story of detection is clearly at the forefront of the plot, what is much more interesting is the dialogue between what is said and what is kept hidden or silent. The book features our trusty detective whose wisdom is buried behind his old age. The mystery surrounds a Jewish boy who is mute, silenced by the horrors that he witnessed in Europe during the Holocaust which is still raging. The whereabouts of his family are not explored and readers can only surmise that they have perished and the boy’s own survival is clearly, on some level, miraculous. The boy’s solitary companion is a parrot who is verbose, singing and chanting apparently random numbers in German.
There is so much irony here: a boy who has much to say but cannot find words, a parrot who prattles, saying much but meaning little, an old detective who communicates in silence with his bees. The tension between these elements in quite magical and enables Chabon to not only present some wonderful characters, but to also engage with complex issues against the backdrop of complex times.
I will definitely be reading Chabon again!