Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon

It's unusual these days to find anyone claiming that something is literally unspeakable; we live in an age that values candor above all, in which all data and thoughts strain to be free. But there are things that are so dark, or so hidden, or so appalling that words can't do them justice.

Michael Chabon's short novel The Final Solution is not about those things, of course. It couldn't possibly be, since it's made of words. But it fits snugly around a void of the unspeakable, and its title hints at all of the things that it doesn't say.

In wartime England, a very old man with a mind that pierces labyrinths keeps bees, off in the countryside, far from the bustle of London, as he has done, quietly and in solitude, for several decades. We know precisely who he is -- or who he was -- but Chabon never says so. And then he gets caught up in the life of a young mute German refugee, after that boy's African gray parrot is mysteriously stolen.

The parrot, various characters note, would recite long strings of numbers -- and that led some to think that the parrot could help crack Nazi codes, since, in Germany, the boy and his parrot had been close to centers of power. But Chabon hints and intimates the true meaning of those numbers, which is of much less use to anyone's war effort.

The old man solves the crime, of course -- that's what he does. But there's a much larger crime out there going on, which he, and all of the people in The Final Solution, are powerless to affect. And Chabon is as interested in that crime -- in all of the things that he can't write about, because they are unspeakable -- as he is in the story of an old man who keeps bees, and what is probably his very last case. As always, Chabon's language is precise but fluid; he's staked out his place exactly between the literary and the genre, so he demands of himself both excellent writing and excellent story. The Final Solution may be a short novel, but it's in no way a small one.

Note: This post was reconstituted, and replaced in close to its proper time, after Blogger decided to go down for a day and wipe all of the posts for the previous day. We are Not Amused, but we carry on nonetheless.

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