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Free Study Guide for The Fixer by Bernard Malamud

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The page numbers listed refer to The Fixer by Bernard Malamud, published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 1966. The page numbers in parenthesis are from Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer published by Dell Publishing Co., Inc.

1.) The son had lived through a pogrom when he was a schoolboy, a three-day Cossack raid. On the third morning when the houses were still smoldering and he was led, with a half dozen other children, out of a cellar where they had been hiding he saw a black-bearded Jew with a white sausage stuffed into his mouth, lying in the road on a pile of bloody feathers, a peasant’s pig devouring his arm. p. 4-5 (p. 10)

We learn that life has been difficult for Yakov Bok since he was young.

2.) “So why, if you’ll excuse me, did you stop sleeping with her for months? Is that a way to treat a wife?”
“It was more like weeks but how long can a man sleep with a barren woman? I got tired of trying.”
“Why didn’t you go to the rabbi when I begged you?”
“Let him stay out of my business and I’ll stay out of his. All in all he’s an ignorant man.”
“Charity you were always short of,” the peddler said.
Shmuel and Bok on p.6 (p. 11)

Here, in a few sentences, we are exposed to Yakov Bok’s outlook on life. He is upset because his life is not going as he wants it to go. He does not think that religion will help to straighten it out. He does not have sympathy for others because he has not been shown sympathy.

3.) “...I was practically born an orphan--my mother died ten minutes later and you know what happened to my poor father. If somebody said Kaddish for them it wasn’t me till years later. If they were waiting outside the gates of heaven it was a long cold wait, if they’re not still waiting....” Bok talking to Shmuel on p. 6 (p. 11)

Bok thinks that, if he stays where he is, his life will be like his parents’ lives, difficult and short.

4.) “...Torah I had little of and Talmud less, though I learned Hebrew because I’ve got an ear for language...” Bok to Shmuel on p. 6 (p. 11)

Yakov has not been taught much about his religion. But, he is proud that he has educated himself. That education includes Hebrew.

5.) “....As for those that look like they’ve got class, take another look. Viskover, the Nogid, is in my eyes a common man. All he’s got is rubles and when he opens his mouth you can hear them clink...” Bok to Shmuel on p. 6 (p. 11)

Bok is self-educated and chooses to look down on those who are not educated, even if they are rich.

6.) He had kept his tools and a few books: Smirnovsky’s Russian Grammar, an elementary biology book, Selections from Spinoza, and a battered atlas at least twenty-five years old. p. 8 (p. 13)

Here we see where Bok’s interests are focused. He wants to speak to a wide range of people so he can educate himself. In his part of the world, the Russian language is very useful for that purpose. He wants to go to a better place. For that, the atlas is a good choice. Spinoza’s ideas get him started thinking about important issues. Later, he will be glad that he studied Spinoza.

7.) “....The shtetl is a prison, no change from the days of Khmelnitsky. It moulders and the Jews moulder in it. Here we are all prisoners, I don’t have to tell you....” Bok on p. 11 (p. 15)

This statement foreshadows Bok’s long prison stay.

8.) “What’s in the world,” Shmuel said, “is in the shtetl--people, their trials, worries, circumstances. But, here at least God is with us.” “He’s with us until the Cossacks come galloping, then he’s elsewhere....” Shmuel, then Bok on p. 12 (p. 16)

At this point, Bok is not happy with God. God does not seem to have any time for him and he feels the same way.

Later, on page 232 (page 190), Bok mentions that God “was on the other side of his mountain” when Jesus needed him.

9.) “There are no wrong books. What is wrong is the fear of them.” Bok on p. 13 (p. 16)

This statement by Bok is as true today as it was in the early twentieth century, as true in every country as it was in Bok’s country, Russia.

10.) “All I have now in this miserable town is a beggarly existence. Now, I’ll try Kiev. If I can live there decently, that’s what I’ll do. If not, I’ll make sacrifices, save up, and head for Amsterdam for a boat to America. To sum it up, I have little, but I have plans.” Bok on p. 13 (p. 16)

Yakov has no idea of what is in store for him. In prison, his life will be much worse than it has been.

11.) Shmuel drew out of his pocket an embroidered cloth bag.
“Don’t forget these,” he said embarrassed. “I found them in your drawer before we left.”
In the bag was another containing phylacteries. There was also a prayer shawl and a prayer book. Raisl, before they were married, had made the bag out of a piece of her dress and embroidered it with the tablets of the Ten Commandments.
p. 17 (p. 19)

Shmuel is like a pillar for Bok and vice versa. Because Shmuel feels close to God, he wants Bok to also feel close to God.

12.) “Don’t talk like a meshummed. Stay a Jew, Yakov, don’t give up our God.”
“A meshummed gives up one God for another. I don’t want either. We live in a world where the clock ticks fast while he’s on his timeless mountain staring in space. He doesn’t see us and he doesn’t care. Today, I want my piece of bread, not in Paradise.”
Shmuel, then Bok, p. 17 (p. 20)

This is more of Bok’s negative attitude toward God. We will see Bok’s attitude change over time. Here we are discovering from where he starts.

13.) “...But, the truth of it is I dislike politics, though don’t ask me why. What good is it if you’re not an activist? I guess it’s my nature. I incline toward the philosophical although I don’t know much about anything.” Bok speaking p. 17 (p. 20)

Bok does not want to become religious like Shmuel is. He thinks that politics might be more useful than religion. But, the trouble is that he is not interested in politics.

14.) “...You can take my word--the time’s not far off when everything I say, we will do, because our Lord, who they crucified, wants his rightful revenge.” He dropped an oar and crossed himself.

Yakov fought an impulse to do the same. His bag of prayer things fell with a plop into the Dnieper and sank like lead. Quote from the boatman who takes Bok across the river p. 28 (p. 29)

Yakov will meet many people with beliefs like those of the boatman. Yakov thinks that the boatman and others like him would not like to see him with religious items. Later, when he is in prison, some of those who want him to be guilty of the crime of which he will be accused will encourage him to look and act Jewish.

15.) “Papa,” said his daughter, “we owe thanks to this good man for assisting you after your accident. He found you face down in the snow. If not for him you would have smothered.” Zinaida talking to her father about Bok p.34 (p. 34 [the same page number])

Later, Zinaida (Zina) will speak against Yakov. Here we hear what she has to say about him soon after they meet.

16.) “.....I light the samovar, read, write letters to old friends and crochet. Papa says I make the most remarkable lace doilies. He marvels at the intricacy of the patterns. But most of the time,” she sighed, “to tell the truth, it can be dreadfully lonely.” Zinaida talking to Bok p. 44 (p. 42)

Zinaida is describing to Yakov how she spends her evenings and how she feels about it.

17.) Though beset by self-doubt and every kind of fear, Yakov was thinking this might be his important chance. A few months’ experience at this kind of work and other opportunities might open up for him. “I’ll think it over carefully,” he said, but before Nikolai Maximovitch had descended the stairs, he had accepted. p. 48 (p. 45)

It is understandable that Yakov would be eager to jump into what appears to be, at last, a fortunate opportunity for him.

18.) “I didn’t know your condition. Excuse me, I had no idea. You didn’t mention it, though I realize it’s personal.”
“But surely you know this is the safest time?” Zina said. “And there’s no inconvenience to speak of, the flow stops the minute we begin.” “Excuse me, some can but I can’t.”
He was thinking of his wife’s modesty during her period and until she had been to the baths, but could not say that to Zina.
“”Excuse me, I’d better be going.”
“I’m a lonely woman, Yakov Ivanovitch, she cried, have mercy a little!” but he was already dressing and soon left. Bok and Zinaida p. 52-53 (p. 49)

Later, Zinaida will describe their encounter in the bedroom as the equivalent of attempted rape.

19.) He would be tried because the accusation had been made, there didn’t have to be another reason. Being born a Jew meant being vulnerable to history, including its worst errors. Accident and history had involved Yakov Bok as he had never dreamed he could be involved. The involvement was, in a way of speaking, impersonal, but the effect, his misery and suffering, was not. The suffering was personal, painful, and possibly endless. p. 155 (p. 128)

Yakov, over time, will accept the fact that he represents all Jews. He will accept the fact that his suffering is personal while his involvement remains impersonal.

20.) “I am innocent,” the fixer shouted hoarsely.
“No Jew is innocent, least of all a ritual assassin. Furthermore, it is known you are an agent of the Jewish Kahal, the secret Jewish international government which is engaged in a subterranean conspiracy with the World Zionist Organization, the Alliance of Herzl, and the Russian Freemasons. We also have reason to believe that your masters are dickering with the British to help you overthrow the legitimate Russian government and make yourselves rulers of our land and people. We are not exactly naïve. We know your purposes. We have read the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ and the ‘Communist Manifesto,’ and fully understand your revolutionary intentions!”

“I am not a revolutionist. I am an inexperienced man. Who knows about such things? I am a fixer.” Bok and Prosecuting Attorney Grubeshov speaking p. 226 (p. 186)

Contrast Grubeshov’s complicated accusations with Bok’s simple denial. Yakov just wants to live his life in obscurity. He does not want the role that is being thrust upon him.

21.) He was sick of their history, destiny, blood guilt. Regarding Bok p. 227 (p. 187)

Bok knows that he is Jewish, but he does not want to be a symbol for all Jews. His own burdens are enough. He does not want “their” burdens.

22.) There was a man crying out in anguish in the dark, but God was on the other side of his mountain. Bok’s thoughts as he reads the New Testament (The man mentioned is Jesus) p. 232 (p. 190)

Yakov reads the New Testament that his jailer brings him. In it he discovers that God was not helpful to Jesus in his time of need in a way similar to how God seems not to be nearby when Yakov needs his help.

23.) “Dear Lord,” he prayed, “forgive this poor Hebrew for his sins, and let him forgive us for sinning against him. ‘For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly father also will forgive you; but, if you do not forgive their trespasses, neither will your father forgive your trespasses.’”
“I forgive no one.”
A priest comes to Bok’s cell and prays p. 236 (p. 193)

Bok’s sharp retort must surely be partly in response to the priest’s suggestion that there is something for which Bok needs forgiveness.

24.) Where there’s no fight for it there’s no freedom. What is it Spinoza says? If the state acts in ways that are abhorrent to human nature it’s the lesser evil to destroy it. Bok’s thought p. 335 (p. 271)

Prison seems to have strengthened Yakov. That is not what the authorities expected.


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