Picador/ St Martin’s Press, $26.00, 301 pages, ISBN 978-1-250-07903-9
The legacy of Joseph Stalin, the ruthless dictator of the Soviet Union during the 1930s, 40s and early 50s, is one of famine, endless bloodshed and tens of millions of deaths due to malfeasance, malevolence and gross mismanagement. It was an era of terror for ordinary citizens . . . a time when neighbor spied upon neighbor and a careless word of criticism could result in torture, imprisonment in a Siberian gulag, or even execution in some cases. It was an epoch that dripped with blood and remained cloaked in mystery. But now that’s changing. And thanks to one of the most remarkable debut novels we’ve ever reviewed, light is starting to shine into ever-smaller nooks and crannies of those torturous years.
The Yid, by Paul Goldberg is part historical, part anecdotal, and part biographical, it is well-researched, well-informed, well-written, erudite, zany, action-packed, profane, blood-drenched and sparkles with repartee as well as being loaded to the gills with gallows humor and pathos. It begins in the last week of February, 1953 during the wee hours of the morning when a Black Maria . . . a paddy wagon used by agents of state security (the KGB) to pick up and transport enemies of the state to a Moscow prison called the Lubyanka, where they’ll be kept, interrogated and tortured before being executed or deported to freezing work camps in Siberia . . . a place from which many never return. But on this night, Tuesday, February 24, 1953 at precisely 2:37 a.m., amid rumors that ‘Papa Joe’ Stalin is about to launch a last great pogram to rid the Soviet Union of all of it’s two million Jews, three uniformed officers come to arrest an old man. His name is Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, a former actor at the now defunct State Jewish Theater. He’s an old Yid–a derogatory term for Jews–and most likely decrepit. The lieutenant and his pair of enlisted men expect a routine arrest without complication, for he’s old, a Yid and lives alone. No wife, no kids or others to weep and wail or beg for his life. Indeed, when he opens the door Levinson . . . dressed in long purple shorts, brown undershirt, a red robe and sporting an ascot about his neck . . . looks like a clown. His response however, is both unexpected and unlike anything the three state security agents have ever experienced, and it’s just the opening act of what becomes a wild, complex plot to assassinate a well-protected, paranoid despot and mass-murderer. It’s an act of madness, to be carried out by a group of aged, educated and disaffected veterans of “The Great Patriotic War,” as they call the Russian Revolution, along with a young communist woman and a middle-aged, black American engineer who’s an enthusiastic socialist expat fleeing the racism of his native country. They are in fact, the most unlikely cast of characters one could imagine, on a suicidal, daft mission . . . all under an impending cloud of doom in the form of a second Holocaust. It is the stuff of legend . . . or utter folly!
One last comment. The Yid is written in a style that takes some getting used to, and wasn’t a quick easy read for me, who would have preferred more story and less shtik. But that being said, it is a work of genius and one for the ages.