restricted access Parting at the Windmills: Malamud's The Fixer as Historical Metafiction
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Parting at the Windmills:
Malamud's The Fixer as Historical Metafiction


When it comes to tracking metafictional experiment in post-World War II American literature, Bernard Malamud's 1966 novel The Fixer is probably not the first text that comes to mind. To be certain, at the time of its publication the book received broad popular and critical acclaim as a remarkable historical novel,1 and it has remained for readers and critics an uncanny post-Holocaust rendition of a pre-Holocaust historical instance of irrational anti-Semitic persecution. The story is based on the famous 1911 Mendel Beiliss case, in which a Ukrainian Jew was incarcerated for over two years on a fabricated charge of blood libel, the false but recurrent anti-Semitic claim that Jews make human sacrifices as part of their religious practice. In Malamud's rendition, protagonist Yakov Bok, a shtetl Jew recently arrived in Kiev who manages to live and work illegally outside the Jewish quarter, finds himself suddenly and wrongly accused of stabbing a young boy and using his blood in a religious ritual. The rest of the novel tracks the mounting hardships of Bok's subsequent imprisonment—because Bok will not sign a confession, the Russians will not indict him and Bok cannot obtain a trial, transforming his prison confinement into a potentially interminable affair made even worse by attempts by the authorities to extract an admission from him through unconventional means—and the intellectual free-fall he suffers as a result. Published in the same year as Thomas Pynchon's landmark metafictional wild-goose chase, The Crying of Lot 49, and two years before John Barth's Lost in [End Page 91] the Funhouse, The Fixer probably seems best appreciated as the literary Petri-dish where Malamud manages to cultivate some of the disturbing mechanisms of twentieth-century ethics on the frame of a resonant historical event. Yet The Fixer is also a work of penetrating psychological depth, and once the gears of Russian justice begin to jam entirely for Bok, Malamud readably devises new narrative modes in order to transcribe his increasingly isolated protagonist's complex internal meditations on justice, philosophy, politics, and religion. His organic narrative innovations are worth noticing, and not only because, shortly before the end of the book, Malamud fleetingly but unambiguously reminds the reader just how far The Fixer has progressed in formal as well as historical allusion. The metafictional arc of The Fixer in fact offers a commentary on the story of Western novelistic form: proceeding from a seemingly stable frame of historical romance, thematized through a subtle but detectable opening gambit reaching back to Don Quixote, Malamud carries the reader across the threshold of modernist formal experiment and questions the limits of stable literary representation. By recovering this aspect of The Fixer, it becomes possible to observe Malamud's embedded argument about the troubling inextricability of the supposedly humanist history of literary form from the unfortunate general history of inhuman atrocity in the twentieth century.2

Let us begin by addressing directly the metafictional lure Malamud dangles for the reader near the end of the novel. There Julius Ostrovsky, the lawyer with "a little reputation" hired to represent Bok against the absurd accusation that he has murdered a young boy and used his blood to make matzos (313), reminds protagonist and reader alike how far Bok has come since he first set out from his humble shtetl. In a lengthy speech, which, tonally, might have been extracted from the pages of a formal history on the matter, Ostrovsky explains the mad logic driving the unjust Russian persecution of the Jews and the nature of its particular virulence in Kiev. He then connects Bok to this history:

Where you came from nobody knew, or who you were, but you came just in time. I understand you came on a horse. When they saw you they pounced, and that's why we're sitting here now. But don't feel too bad, if it weren't you there'd be another in your place."

(310) [End Page 92]

Initially, the remark seems simply to reiterate what both the reader and Bok...