Separation of the Past and Present: Malamud’s Integral Use of Setting in The Fixer

“Life is a tragedy full of joy.” The view advanced by Bernard Malamud, while somewhat morbid, is mirrored in his life’s work. To express the futility of life in Russia, Malamud creates a setting which seems entirely removed from this century. Through his use of a foreign setting and different time period, he reinforces the confusion and anguish of the protagonist, Yakov Bok. The separation he creates between the present and the past enables Malamud to present a series of events that, were they set in a more current time or place, would be incomprehensible to the reader. By setting his story in Russia during the early twentieth century, Malamud portrays a social and political reality without fighting against the disbelief of his readers.The harsh climate of Russia and the conditions of his confinement continually challenge Yakov’s tenacity and will to survive. This natural conflict enhances the central struggle between Yakov and the Russian legal system. During his imprisonment, Yakov contends with bone-chilling cold as well as extreme heat. “Time was summer now, when the hot cell stank heavily and the walls sweated” (215). Against this heat he is provided little protection and no ventilation; even cleanliness becomes impossible to maintain. The winter provides no relief: the “acrid cold” disheartens Yakov to the same degree as the harsh summer (205). While a small fire is lit twice a day, it can hardly contend with “the wind seeping through the split glass” that gnaws at Yakov’s “head and hands” (205). All this Yakov must endure without the comfort of a companion to share his hardships. His solitary confinement, complete with shackles, is as trying as the natural forces of weather which he is also fighting. Yakov is “stricken to be so absolutely alone” and reaches out even to his guards for friendship (215). Even beyond the setting of his solitary confinement, Yakov must fight for his survival in an environment where poisoning is both practiced and acceptable. “Poison! My God, they’re poisoning me!” (180). This reality, when exacerbated by the larger issue of inhumane confinement standards and the harsh conditions of Russian weather, creates an overwhelmingly harsh setting that Yakov must conquer. While Russia is a well-known country, the customs and legal system are relative mysteries to many readers of the novel. This mystery adds to the compelling confusion of the novel and emphasizes the point of view Yakov must also share. Initially, Yakov is unaware of the reason for his incarceration, claiming that his supposed crime is a “confusion in my mind” (73). Because the reader knows nothing more than the prisoner, the reader is dragged through the trials of uncertainty just as Yakov is. In addition to magnifying the insecurity of Yakov’s situation, various customs are touched on to add to the atmosphere of the novel. Little examples (such as when Shmuel “sucked tea through sugar”) are distinctly Russian (9). Other traditions, specifically of the religious persuasion, allow Malamud to maintain the thread of Judaism throughout the novel. Although Yakov is not a practicing Jew, phylacteries, prayer shawls, and even matzo bread become crucial aspects of his fight for freedom. The confusion of foreign cultural and religious traditions is accented continually by the legal system of Russia, a mystery to even those who participate actively in it. Yakov is never informed of the status of his case and instead is forced to inwardly wonder “what will happen to me now?” (96). Because Russia lacks the fundamental systems to protect his rights as a prisoner, however, no answer is forthcoming. Through these varying aspects of Russian and Jewish culture, Malamud creates a setting that adds to the suspense and ultimate tragedy of the novel. Even more important than the physical setting of the novel, however, is the time period in which it takes place. During the early twentieth century, society encouraged racial discrimination against Jews as an acceptable way to provide scapegoats and increase unity. Organizations such as the Black Hundreds flourished under the sanctions of the Russian state despite their continual harassment of innocent Jews. Even condemned criminals discriminated against Yakov based on his Jewish heritage. Their taunts-“So you’re the bastard Jew who killed the Christian boy and sucked the blood out of his bones?” and ‘You’re a stinking Jew liar” (98, 99)-expose the unsubtle hostility directed towards Jews. While Malamud may interpret historical events in such a way as to increase drama, modern readers find it hard to believe that this level of intolerance would be allowed to occur in the modern day. Naturally, communication is another aspect limited by the time period chosen by Malamud. Unlike today, where something happening on one side of the world is broadcast to the other side of the globe within minutes, the only source of information in Russia was the newspaper, which was often edited. Information only trickled out to the public slowly, adding to the suspense and anguish of Yakov and the reader. Even when a “clever journalist” discovered damaging evidence towards Marfa Golov, “the publisher was fined and the press shut down by the police for three months” (274). The time period also allows Malamud to show the inhumane treatment of prisoners within state-run institutions. The power of Malamud’s portrayal of Yakov stems in large part from the ordeals that he must endure for a crime he did not commit; if those ordeals were made more humane, Yakov’s status as a martyr would be lessened. “Three times each day” Yakov is “searched to desperation” during a full body cavity search that serves only to torture the prisoner (215). By depicting a world removed from the current time, Malamud can more easily show events that modern times would not allow. The conditions, customs, and historical setting in which Yakov Bok must fight for his life add to the power and suspense of his struggles. By creating a world foreign to the reader, Malamud enrobes the narration in a cloak of mystery and confusion almost impenetrable by the reader. These qualities are responsible for the power and significance of Yakov’s struggle. While Malamud may use the setting of The Fixer to evoke the futility of Yakov’s tragedy, even this can not prevent the triumph and joy of human determination.

Freedom and Responsibility in The Fixer

Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer depicts the constant tribulations of Yakov Bok during the pre-Russian Revolutionary era. The plot follows the life of Jewish repairman: Yakov Bok, in finding an occupation that will allow him to venture off into a world of luck, luxuries, and overall better living. However, in the midst of the highest point in his career, life and its ills of corruption and avarice entangle him in the murder of a young Christian boy: Zhenia Golov. As a novel written in a first person-limited writing style, Malamud establishes and surrounds the themes around the changes in Yakov’s life, situation, and relationships. In the passage “You think not…. I am a fixer” (184-186), Malamud establishes freedom and responsibility as coexisting and sometimes contradicting elements that aid individuals in alleviating the tolls of a facile society through characterization, mood, and metaphor.

In the novel, Bibikov, the Investigating Magistrate for Cases of Extraordinary Importance is the only character that righteously fulfills his moral and societal responsibilities. Malamud carefully decides Bibikov’s profession in order to emphasize not only his importance in the world of Russian Law but in the course of the novel as well. His title not only characterizes him as the Investigating Magistrate, which in itself is already a profession of high importance but further emphasizes the profession and overall importance of the character by adding the title, Cases of Extraordinary Importance. In fact, the role that Bibikov fulfills is of extraordinary importance, as he is the one who establishes not only a moral high ground for Yakov’s character but is there to guide him. By characterizing Bibikov in a state of martyrdom after his death, not for religious purposes, but rather for preserving justice, Malamud emphasized the death of Bibikov as the destruction of one of Yakov’s only resorts, the hope of freedom also fades away. Without Bibikov’s work and guidance in Yakov’s case of extraordinary importance, being Yakov’s freedom, it establishes a new goal for Yakov, which is to focus on responsibility rather than freedom to better the lives of others as well as his.

Malamud emphasizes Deputy Warden’s antagonistic nature and personality; by emphasizing the connotations behind the characterizations, Malamud associates him. Similar to how the name of Bibikov emphasizes his role in the novel, Deputy Warden’s also becomes an important contributor to Yakov’s like. In this case, Deputy Warden is the character that encourages and fuels of the failures of Yakov in both achieving a sense of freedom and admitting to a crime that he is not responsible for. Since his character is the antagonist of the novel, his characterization characterizes him in a light that exceeds the cruelty of any other antagonistic character. “This time you overreached yourself, Bok. You’ll wish you had never laid eyes on this other conspirator. We’ll show you what good outside agitation will do. You’ll wish you had never been born.” (Malamud 262).” Since Deputy Warden’s character intertwines all of the negative characteristics of other antagonists, he forms a collective representation and reminder of what Yakov Bok need s to fix or repair in Russia’s society. This is because his societal status of a Warden establishes him as not only a Warden of the jail but also a Warden that prevents and destroys Yakov’s possibility of freedom and sets new definitions for responsibility. In being an antagonist, Deputy Warden’s freedom, and characterization of his power are ultimately futile, because he is a slave to a higher power that will never allow him to achieve the kind or freedom Yakov is still able to obtain. In being reliant on a higher power, due to the accepting perspective on cruelty, Deputy Warden changes the definitions of responsibility and freedom to achievable goals for Yakov.

Throughout the course of the novel, the mood’s somber state remains constant, thus establishing the mood as a metaphor for the continuity of Yakov’s misfortunes. The format in which his tribulations present themselves is also very systematic, and therefore static. The continuity of the somber mood, emphasize the difficulty of changing society’s unwritten rules. These misfortunes eventually foreshadow Yakov’s inability to escape the world that treats him inhumanly due to the lack of both genuine freedom and responsibilities that encourage the individuals to pursue life and goals.

Yakov’s title as The Fixer, not only acts as a description of his occupation but also a metaphorical description in the novel. The novel follows his transition from a repairman into the individual that becomes responsible for fixing the ills of society. The Fixer is a metaphor for his work in fixing Russian society. After Bibikov commits suicide, Yakov’s thoughts entangle themselves and eventually make Yakov realize that his hopes for his freedom in a literal and emotional sense will never manifest themselves during his lifetime. He realizes that even though he cannot be a repairman, he can be The Fixer in the lives of Jewish individuals, the very people whose religion he questions, but decides to be part of because he knows that the society has no right in treating them. In being the fixer of society, he is able to refrain from blaming Jewish individuals for the absence of God’s work in his life. His restoration not only tries to reinstitute morality into the justice system, society’s moral values, and Christian actions. His work emphasizes the idea that a society can succeed with tolerance towards religious values.

In a society in which the dominating factor is avarice and the acceptance of this factor is effectively there, it is only the works of individuals that know and often times struggle with the adverse effects that can change the course of society. Yakov, being a character through the course of his life, experiences the gain and the loss of responsibility and freedoms in forms that are meaningless until his final responsibility as the fixer of society, thereby proving freedom and responsibility as the most important factors in creating and restoring a proper functioning in society.