Friday, January 21, 2011

Bookshelf Bookstore: The Final Solution

Today's review is of the short novel The Final Solution by Michael Chabon.
According to Chabon's page on HarperCollins, this novel is an homage to 19th century detective novels, particularly the Holmes stories. You'll soon see why even if, like myself, you've never read such a story.

The story opens in southern England, 1944. A boy is walking along a set of train tracks and upon his shoulder sits an African gray parrot. This amazing sight catches the attention of an elderly man of 89, who is known in the village as an eccentric beekeeper and a formerly world-famous detective.

The boy is Linus Steinman, a Jewish refugee recently arrived from Germany. He doesn't speak and he seems afflicted by both a physical and emotional illness. The old man notes upon their first meeting that he has "a face as wan and empty as the bottom of a beggar's tin cup." 

But even more amazing is that his parrot, Bruno, almost constantly recites a string of jumbled numbers in German, among other bits of poetry and mimicry. There is no clue as to what these numbers mean -- are they a secret Nazi code? Bank account numbers? Or, considering Linus's situation, something more horrifying?

In no time at all, Bruno's unusual habit attracts several people interested in deciphering the exact meaning of his numbers and soon after one person is summarily murdered.

The old man is called upon by the local inspectors to help discover the murderer. He is never named but Chabon hints heavily that he is Sherlock Holmes. Notice the many mentions of a tweed suit, a magnificent magnifying glass, and constant smoking of a pipe throughout the novel.

I suppose, by virtue of being Sherlock Holmes (and probably a bit to do with an unexpected fondness for Linus), he agrees to help the police because this is just the type of unusual case he was famous for solving.

It is the old man's insights and nosing about that drives the story forward. I confess that it was easy to follow his deductions. The real joy in following him is the pain and helplessness you feel when he endures moments of senility, his bittersweet longing for years past, his grumbling tolerance of Linus, and his utter perversity.

For example, when he tells the police he shall help them, he makes it clear that he's actually only interested in finding Linus's parrot but assures them that if he discovers the murderer it will be a fortuitous bonus for them.

Though this novel is only 131 pages, don't be fooled by its slimness. Chabon has a gift for not just describing through is words, but emoting, and as a result is able to pack in quite a lot of story in a few sentences. As the main character starts to unravel the mysteries of the novel he experiences a wondrous event:

"A delicate, inexorable lattice of inferences began to assemble themselves, like a crystal, in the old man's mind, shivering, catching the light in glints and surmises. It was the deepest pleasure life could afford...and one that he had lived without for a terribly long time." 

What a mesmerizing image to think of our thoughts as forming the delicate structure of a crystal that can be fractured at any moment, or solidify into something beautiful. And I find it very sad to feel that he is almost in pain with the pleasure of experiencing this event that he thought he would never experience again.

The book finishes where it began, at the train tracks, and the old man reflects that perhaps the only truth that can be discerned from life is within one's own mind -- in this case, one that is shared by Linus and Bruno.

If you haven't already read any of Chabon's novels, I would highly recommend picking one up. I really enjoyed not just this one but also The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. If you do pick this one up, I recommend reading a bit about the history of comic books in the 1920s-1940s and the Jewish golem.

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