Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

"Dispute Incarnate": Philip Roth's Operation Shylock, the Demjanjuk Trial, and Eyewitness Testimony

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

"Dispute Incarnate": Philip Roth's Operation Shylock, the Demjanjuk Trial, and Eyewitness Testimony

Article excerpt

Things, events, that occupy space yet come to an end when someone dies may make us stop in wonder-and yet one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man or woman's death, unless the universe itself has a memory . (Borges 311)

Holocaust survivor Pinhas Epstein told the court in the trial of the State of Israel v. John Demjanjuk, "I don't know how to go about explaining things logically" (qtd. in Teicholz 137).1 Epstein's logical predicament was created by the fact that human beings committed inhuman acts against each other. Logical predicament forms the aesthetic, and the ethos, of Philip Roth's Operation Shylock (1993), an implausible novel in which the two central incompatibilities are that two people can be the same person and a person can be both dead and alive.2 In the face of this pair of outrageous suggestions, this seeks not so much to square the impossible circles as to argue that Roth deliberately manipulates the events of Demjanjuk's trial to bring logical impasse into the spotlight and propose that mutual incompatibilities can be the basis of Holocaust fiction and historiography.3

Operation Shylock, an "explainer's paradise" (Shechner 140), immediately sets out two truth systems: fiction and reality.4 The preface claims, "I've drawn Operation Shylock from notebook journals. The book is as accurate an account as I am able to give of actual occurrences that I lived through during my middle fifties" (13). The note to the reader, "This book is a work of fiction" (399), claims the exact opposite, although Smilesburger undermines its effect through his advice to the character Philip-"call it fiction instead," [. . . a]ppend a note: 'I made this up'" (387)-and by the note's immediate counterclaim that the interview with Aharon Appelfeld and the account of the morning session of 27 January 1988 of the Demjanjuk trial are real. The confusion is not confined to the novel. In his piece for the New York Times Book Review, which accompanied a review of the book by D. M. Thomas, Roth wrote:

In January 1989 [sic] I was caught up in a Middle East crisis all my own, a personal upheaval that had the unmistakable signposts of the impossible, as opposed to those of the predictable, plausible reality to which I am as hopelessly addicted as any other human being [. . .] a satirizing of me so bizarre and unrealistic as to exceed by far the boundaries of amusing mischief I may myself have playfully perpetrated on my own existence. ("Jewish Mischief " 1)

Fact or fiction? All Roth's essay really establishes is that the former is stranger, or less "plausible," than the latter. In the confusion, the reader's impulse is to turn to biographies and other contemporary records in an attempt to discover what really happened, unable to entertain the proposal that something may be simultaneously true and untrue.

The novel further perpetuates this troubling fiction-reality opposition through a series of problematic, unstable identities. "Multiple selves had been on my mind for months now," confides Philip (152) after his Halcion-induced breakdown, which is described as a "transformation" and a "deformation" (27; emphasis in original). Purely fictional characters and personages with real-life referents populate the novel, including Appelfeld, Demjanjuk, and Klinghof-fer. There are numerous manifestations of "the universal urge to be otherwise" (180) and the "altogether human desire to be convinced by lies" (364). These instances include Philip's masquerades as Pierre Roget and Philippe Sollers; an adopted Parisian lawyer who has invented her own history; tourists to the Holy Land who believe they are the Messiah; Jinx Possesski's resemblance to Philip's (and Roth's) first wife; George Ziad's incarnation in Chicago; the Islamic concept of taqiya or dissimulation (145); an Israeli soldier with a conscience; Pipik's missing persons agency; the strange comparison of Philip to Sammy Davis Jr.; the disputed fake Klinghoffer diaries; and a Lee Harvey Oswald double. …

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