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Will the Real Roth Stand Up?

BOOK

By Beth L. Pinsker

Philip Roth makes readers skeptical of his new novel from the outset. "For legal reasons," he says in the preface, "I have had to alter a number of facts in this book." In the preface, Roth the author is already mixing it up with Roth the character, confusing what is real and what is fictional, what is altered and what is hallucinatory. Operation Shylock: A Confession plays a steady game of doubled identities and Roth the author supports the truth of the volume "out of uniform," so to speak, in interviews where he claims again that the whole thing is true. Not until the reader gets to the disclaimer at the end of the book--a perfunctory "Note to the Reader"--do we know for sure that: "This book is a work of fiction." But after 400 pages of uprooting plot twists, even this holds little credence.

The confusion starts with the author himself. This tale of doubled and redoubled identity swarms with Philip Roths. There are so many of them floating around these days that it's hard to keep track of who is talking and who believes what. The New York Times annotated an interview with the author with subscripts (Roth 1, Roth 2 and Roth 3). Other reviewers have had to explain clearly who they mean by Philip Roth the author, Philip Roth the character and Philip Roth the imposter. The opening of the story explains that Philip Roth the character (and the author too) spent part of 1987 addicted to the sleeping drug Halcion prescribed after a botched knee operation. The pills produced horrid side effects of depression, suicidal tendencies and hallucinations.

During his recovery, Roth the character learns from his friends in Israel that there is an imposter giving lectures and interviews around Jerusalem who lets himself be identified in the press as the author of Portnoy's Complaint and The Counterlife. This Philip Roth looks exactly like the original--he wears the same outfit down to the worn-at-the-elbow tweed sports jacket and worn-at-the-heels brown loafers. In a fragile mental state, Roth the character decides to go to Israel to chase the man down, still wary that the imposter is a latent drug-induced hallucination.

Philip Roth the imposter, however, seems to exist. Roth the character calles him Moishe Pipik (Moses Bellybutton) in a mock Yiddish epithet. Chasing Pipik around Israel. Roth finds out that the double has been spreading a gospel of "Diasporism"--he counsels Ashkenazi Jews to return to Eastern Europe to avoid another Holocaust at the hands of Arabs. Pipik had already met secretly with Lech Walesa and was trying to meet with the Pope using Roth's name.

Roth the author (the guy who actually lives in Connecticut) spendidly puts together a farcical spy tale, a post-modern identity crisis and a reading of modern Jewish life. Operation Shylock humor never fails and the narrative bursts with irony. The insistance on plot veracity might seem heavy-handed by the end, but the twists never lack ingenuity. Nothing here sounds stupid or farfetched, even though it is unlikely that any of it happened.

Only the politics will keep some from enjoying the novel, but there are so many turns that it is impossible to pin down Roth the author's intentions and "blame" him for holding any particular view. Would some chastise the sympathetic portayal of a Palestinian Nationalist? Or rather, would some be upset by a sympathic portrait of a Mossad (the Israeli Secret Police) officer named (or not named) Smilesburger, who regrets the plight of Palestinians but defends Israel nonetheless?

Jumbled among these elements is the trial of John Demjanjuk, the retired Cleveland autoworker accused of being Ivan the Terrible, the notorious Nazi guard at Treblinka. Roth attends the trial in the beginning to find Pipik, but he gets so caught up in the idea of mistaken identity that he begins to go out of sheer interest. Roth jumbles in more characters--the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld (who actually exists); his cousin Apter, a slow-witted artist and Holocaust survivor (who doesn't): George Ziad, an old graduate school friend who is now a militant Palistinian living on the West bank; Jinx Possesski, Pipik's Polish nurse and girlfriend (who is a recovering anti-Semite enrolled in Pipik's Anti-Semites Anonymous) and Jonathan Pollard, the American convicted of spying for Israel.

All of these characters work to finally push Roth to the brink--he signs on to work for the Mossad on a mission to find Jews who contribute to the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Posing as Pipik posing as Roth, Roth meets with Yasser Arafat in a chapter that was "removed" from the book for "Israeli security reasons."

The book ends with Roth and Smilesburger meeting in a Jewish deli on the West side of Manhattan. Over coffee and lox, the Mossad agent urges Roth to use his Jewish conscience to decide what part of this story to tell. Then he gives him a million dollars. And Roth is free to write his "true" story--or maybe not.

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