Here’s a great setup for a caper: A ragtag group of Russians team up to assassinate Stalin in late February 1953. The reason? Stalin is planning one more pogrom against the Jews, a little-remembered fact that gives Washington writer Paul Goldberg’s “The Yid” a basis that other historical fiction writers (i.e. me) can well be jealous of. Further, Stalin did die around then, which is clever cover for the author to flummox reader expectations about whether the scheme will succeed.
However, although there are the exciting scenes you’d expect — scheming guards, stolen uniforms, forged orders, inconvenient bodies that need disposal — I think Goldberg wants to grapple more with the multiple, contradictory identities that individuals assume when a society’s ever-changing rules fail them. Mostly, he wants to communicate the terrible impact of blood libel.
It’s a term so important that Goldberg mentions it in the first sentence of his author bio. So let’s start where the novel does, winter ’53, with one of the feared Black Maria trucks arriving in darkness to arrest Solomon Levinson, an actor from the defunct State Jewish Theater. Elderly but not exactly helpless, Levinson butchers the thugs sent to detain him. This sets in motion the accumulation of an acting troupe whose sole dramatic performance will be their attempt to kill Stalin. They include Friederich Lewis, a black man from America who stayed in Russia for both political and social reasons; Aleksandr Kogan, a revered surgeon; Ol’ga Fyodorovna, “half-nun, half-harlot”; and the mercurial Kima Petrova, who has more poetic ties to the plot than immediately revealed.
The story is told in present tense, odd for historical fiction, but fitting, in that Goldberg makes us aware that his characters are corks floating in the moment — one second can change the meaning of who they are. Lewis, for instance, has been jerked around by powerful people who employ him as whatever symbol Soviet philosophy requires. Need an excellent engineer at Magnitogorsk, the Gary, Ind., of Soviet industry? Need an African American to fill in for Paul Robeson? Need an object of sexual fantasy for Russian women? Lewis might be your reluctant man.
And Levinson? Well, he’s a complexity, a detachment commander for the Red Cavalry, a killer with daggers, a theater historian, a professional clown, and, of course, in local slang, a Yid.
What a word! Novels set in Russia need to deal with the nuances of that land’s famously translation-resistant speech patterns. Goldberg performs an exegesis on many phrases that would otherwise baffle us. For instance, the attempt to arrest Levinson begins with the thugs pounding on the door and asking questions in Russian that he answers in Yiddish, as if it’s a stage routine dependent on puns and homonyms. Yes, that slows things down, but we begin to understand how treacherous life is in a land where saying the wrong thing — or having someone decide, after the fact, that what you said in the past is now wrong — can get you killed.
When the system is diseased (Goldberg makes a fascinating analogy about the epidemiology of fascism), what spreads is fear. The novel is set during the “Doctors’ Plot,” an imagined insurrection in which, party members feared, Jewish doctors were deliberately murdering officials. Deep in the novel, Goldberg dramatizes how awful that rumor’s impact was with a scene of a brilliant doctor attempting to treat a suspicious admiral’s mother. But these are minor characters, and dwelling on them makes the narrative feel like it’s still in first gear. Only later, when the conspirators try to account for the quotidian mechanics of launching a pogrom — counting train cars, for instance — do we feel like we’ve launched into a properly horrifying drama.
All of these aspects come together with the decision about how exactly Stalin should die, in a way either ironic or predestined, as a punishment for perpetuating blood libel, the cultural legend that claims Jews use the blood of gentiles to make matzo. Of course, it never really happened, but “The Yid” asks a great question: If you were presupposed as guilty of such crimes, and you were on your way to kill Stalin, might you give your prejudiced audience what violence they anticipate, “Inglourious Basterds”-style? Whether the denouement satisfies you depends on your anticipation of bloodletting vs. a more thematically resonant climax. I’m good either way.
“The Yid” is darkly playful and generous with quick insights into the vast weirdness of its landscape. And yet, at one point, Goldberg writes, “Our purpose is to describe these events with accuracy, coherent or not.” This is something a reader of historical fiction might argue with, as accuracy is for a different audience. We are most immersed in the past, I think, when we watch someone manipulate it. This might be, ironically, a lesson Stalin taught, too, but it’s still an apt one for readers to consider when engaged with such a fine enterprise as this one.
By Paul Goldberg
Picador. 307 pp. $26