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In his 1986 essay “Writing and the Holocaust,” Irving Howe observed that the real problem with books about the Holocaust is not that they cannot give us aesthetic pleasure, but that they can. “Can we be sure that we do not gain a sort illicit pleasure from our pained submission to such works?” he wonders; and the idea that pleasure is illicit, beyond the bounds of acceptable response, is itself the mark of the Holocaust’s uniqueness as a subject. “Can we really say that in reading a memoir or novel about the Holocaust … we gain the pleasure, the catharsis, that is customarily associated with the aesthetic question?” Howe asks, and neither possible response seems to be acceptable. If literature about the Holocaust is not cathartic, if it leaves us as horrified and frightened as before, then why do we feel a compulsion to read (and write) it? And if it is cathartic, aren’t we letting ourselves off too cheaply—as though our obligations to the memory of the dead and to their suffering can be discharged merely by reading a book? Howe, like every honest reader before and since, throws up his hands at what seems an insoluble problem: “I do not know how to answer these questions, which threaten many of our usual assumptions about what constitutes an aesthetic experience.”

Despite this bafflement, new novels about the Holocaust are written all the time. Still, it is not every month that two of Britain’s best and most famous writers publish books about the subject—and at a moment when anti-Semitism, its causes and consequences, has darkly returned to the center of political discussion. This summer, during the Israeli campaign in Gaza, Britain witnessed the kind of anti-Semitic incidents and attacks that plagued Jewish communities across Europe. Things weren’t as bad there as in France, where a mob besieged a synagogue, or in Belgium, where a terrorist killed four people in a Jewish museum; but they were bad enough. Particularly ominous was the decision of a London supermarket manager to remove a kosher food display, lest it draw the anger of Muslim demonstrators. This kind of symbolic erasure of Jewishness, this implicit agreement that the mere existence of kosher food presents an intolerable provocation, follows a logic that leads directly to expelling Jews themselves from the public sphere.

At such a moment, the appearance of The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis, and J, by Howard Jacobson, seems like more than a coincidence. These books return to the subject of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, as to problems that are no longer merely historical. In particular, both once again pose Howe’s old question: Is genocide narratable, and if so, what kind of language could be faithful to it? The difference between them—and it’s hard to imagine two novels with less in common, despite their shared subject matter—stems from the different answers they offer to this question. Amis believes that the traditional novel of realism, even of comic realism, is adequate to the Holocaust; The Zone of Interest represents an act of faith in the resources of fiction to address even the worst. Meanwhile, Jacobson believes that the subject demands disorientation, reticence, and confusion, as if to ward off the temptation of easy understanding. The result is a book that reads like a mystery story crossed with a parable, in which the reader’s knowledge is left full of disorienting gaps.

For this reason, J is a greater departure for Jacobson than The Zone of Interest is for Amis. From the beginning of his career, Jacobson has made uproariously, exquisitely uncomfortable comedy out of the psychology of British Jewry. His masterpiece, Kalooki Nights, draws on his Manchester upbringing to paint a wonderful portrait of a cloistered, anxious, yet ambitious and appetitive Jewish community. But Jacobson, who also writes a column about current events for the Independent newspaper, has in recent years become less funny on the subject of Jews, as he seems convinced that their predicament in Britain is no longer so comic. It’s ironic that the novel that won him the Booker Prize in 2010, The Finkler Question, is the one in which comedy began to give way to serious worry and even panic. Starting out as a farce about mistaken identity, that book ends with vandalism of a Jewish museum, attacks on Orthodox schoolboys, and a Jewish character’s reverie about whether it’s time to start keeping a suitcase packed.

In J, Jacobson has followed this train of anxieties to its ultimate, apocalyptic conclusion. J takes place in a future England, somewhere around the year 2070, though the exact date, like so much else in the story, remains vague. The first clue that there is something deeply amiss in this imaginary world comes from the characters’ names: Everyone bears a Celtic-sounding first name and a Jewish last name, making for implausible combinations like “Kevern Cohen” and “Ailinn Solomons.” These are the hero and heroine of the book, and they live in a town known as Port Reuben—another Jewish name—whose exact location is again unspecified. All we learn is that it is a remote seaside village, dependent on tourism yet deeply distrustful of outsiders, who are contemptuously referred to as “aphids.” The placelessness of Port Reuben makes it feel like the village in Kafka’s The Castle, yet it is also legible as Jacobson’s allegory of England—a place dependent on visitors and immigrants, yet sullenly turned in on itself, refusing to welcome those it attracts.

As Jacobson sketches in more of his fictional world, it becomes clear that names aren’t the only things that have gone awry. Society is afflicted by a continual, habitual violence: Fights break out constantly, “snogging” (kissing) is aggressive and frequently draws blood, adultery and rape and even murder are on the rise. Then there are the more pointed and private omens: Why, for instance, did Kevern Cohen’s father always put two fingers over his mouth whenever he spoke a word that started with “J”? Why is there an unofficial ban on any discussion of the past, so that library books have whole sections torn out?

J is a horror story about a Holocaust that changes history and even human nature; but the real horror of the real Holocaust is that it did no such thing.
The answer, we soon learn, has to do with a traumatic event in the novel’s past, which is our near future—something that is referred to only as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. The name is a euphemism, and the event itself is only ever referred to in language of emollient vagueness: “If we are honest with ourselves,” one character muses, “no section of society can claim to have acquitted itself well. I make no accusations. Whether it was done ill, or done well, what was done was done. Then was then. No more needs to be said—on this we agree. And just as there is no blame to be apportioned, so there are no amends to be made, were amends appropriate and were there any way of making it.”

This comes on page 18, and it is part of the novel’s terrible message that we already know, without being told, that WHAT HAPPENED must involve the Jews. The taboo on the letter “J” is one clue, the proliferation of Jewish names another—and of course the fact that this is a Howard Jacobson novel already cues our expectations. But by withholding the actual word “Jew,” which is not used even once in the novel, Jacobson compels us to recognize that English and European society has only one historic scapegoat, one traditional victim and enemy, that could plausibly be the target of massive, popular violence. Who else could we be hearing about when one character, a professor of art who is tasked with secretly spying on Kevern Cohen, blames WHAT HAPPENED on “the alien intellectualism that brought such destruction on itself,” or on “our displeasure with their foreign policy (bizarre that they should have had a foreign policy, given that they were foreigners themselves and had what they called a country only by taking someone else’s)”?

What Jacobson is imagining, to put it in so many words, is an English Holocaust, set to take place sometime around the year 2020. About what actually happened to the Jews at this time, we hear next to nothing, except for a few stray hair-raising details—for instance, that it involved luring Jewish children with repurposed ice-cream vans. All we know is that, to protect itself from the guilt of this memory, English society has transformed itself beyond recognition, thanks above all to OPERATION ISHMAEL, which gave everyone in the country a Jewish last name. The purpose of this, evidently, was to make it impossible to tell perpetrators from victims. But at the same time, it also has the opposite effect: The names function as a memorial to the murdered, forcing the murderers to live forever with the badge of their crime.

Nestled at the heart of this dystopian fantasy is the story of Kevern and Ailinn, two misfits who are haunted by inexplicable childhood silences. Kevern was brought up by evasive, morose parents who instilled in him a nameless fear, which expresses itself as obsessive-compulsive disorder: He can’t leave his house without checking over and over again to make sure no one has snuck in. Ailinn was raised in an orphanage, then adopted, but she too has never lost the feeling of vulnerability: “When people describe having the wind at their back it’s a sensation of freedom I don’t recognize. An unthreatening, invigorating space behind me?—no, I don’t ever have the luxury of that. There might be nothing there when I turn around, but it isn’t a beneficent nothing. Nothing good propels me.”