Yakov Bok Bound

Yakov Bok Bound

Paul Fischer

Religion and Philosophy
Richard Sugarman

In Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer the handyman for whom the book is named has broken everything in his life. He is the kind of man that, as the Talmud goes, is alive but dead. His wife, after five years of fruitless marriage, has left him and when he seeks opportunities outside of his Jewish Shtetl, enemies of the Jewish Nation imprison and try him in a misguided political prosecution. Nothing can go right for Yakov.
He finds himself “the kind of man who finds it perilous to be alive.” It appears that Yakov’s only ally is the lethargic Bibikov, a member of the prosecuting team who does not share his colleagues’ misgivings for the Jewish race. He realizes that the charge is trumped up political nonsense, and he will ultimately be murdered for his continued investigation. Yakov can be compared to many historical and mythical figures. One of these is Prometheus, of Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, a hapless hero of ancient Greek mythology.
Prometheus is the Greek champion of mankind, a fearless titan who defies Zeus to bring fire, and more importantly, hope to pathetic humans apparently without personal ambition or desire for reward, indeed at great consequence to himself. Or perhaps, with the power of foresight, he knows Zeus will be toppled by man one day and is shrewdly choosing sides, albeit painfully. In either case, Zeus retaliates  by putting Prometheus on a rock where his insides will be eaten daily by an eagle. While it appears Zeus’ underlings, Strength, Force and Hephaestus, are somewhat sympathetic to Prometheus, explaining, “No heart have I, to chain a god… Yet surely I must find the heart the heart to do it; My Sire’s behest not lightly is contemned” (15) they still recognize that they cannot betray the divine power of their master, without suffering a fate far worse than that of Prometheus.
Prometheus’ unique power of foresight gives the tale a twist. It is hard to imagine why he would choose such a fate. He declares that “all that shall be, I surely know” yet “how to speak my griefs, I know not.” (100, 110) This means that he knows not only of the existence of Zeus’ punishment, but also its extreme severity. He cannot have had any delusions about the potential for humans to rise up in rebellion to Zeus for his sake. While the humans certainly support Prometheus, declaring they would like to see him wield power equal to Zeus (520), they are little more than glorified cheerleaders for the destitute protagonist.
Looking specifically at their characters, it would not be wrong to say Prometheus and Yakov are completely inverse. Prometheus starts as an immortal, one of the most powerful titans in the world, gifted with foresight, and so strong that even Force and Strength are loath to bind him for fear of his eventual revenge. His transgression is a deliberate attempt to undermine Zeus and punished without mercy through divine power. Yakov begins with the naive belief that “with a bit of luck, I‘ll make my fortune in the outside world” (12). He quickly loses sight of this as he becomes essentially a political pawn, an individual imprisoned in order to accomplish certain political goals. Even fellow Jews use his eventual trial to undermine the prejudices that they have fought for so long. Yakov’s complete cluelessness is in direct contrast to Prometheus’ cognizant, planned delivery of fire and hope to the mortals of Greece.
Yakov begins The Fixer with nothing, gains a little through sickening means (the aid of a high ranking anti-Semitic alcoholic, Nikolai Maximovitch) only to have it sucked away by the power of massive political forces at work The opportunity Yakov had created by posing as a Christian freethinker pales in comparison to the massive effort mobilized to imprison and punish him. Yakov himself is dumbfounded, asking the prosecution, “Do you really believe those stories about magicians stealing the blood out of  a murdered Christian child to mix in with matzos?“ (142) Unlike Prometheus, who was a major player in the political battle that doomed him and who certainly knew the consequences of his action, Yakov had absolutely no foresight of his actions. He believed he was only pursuing “opportunity” in a bigger city. The difference is that while the two suffer from intangibly great forces, Prometheus was an active character while Yakov was merely a victim.
This is most apparent in the dialogues of each work. Prometheus Bound is dominated by the protagonist’s explanations of his unfortunate situation. Yakov’s thoughts are relegated to himself His contact with others such as the prosecution or his lawyer consists of the protagonist posing the questions. While his questions are fascinating, they also indicate his lack of control. But Prometheus also has no apparent power, he merely preaches to the choir (or in this case, the chorus.)
Both Prometheus and Yakov do have power, however. All Yakov has to do is admit guilt and confess to a crime he is innocent of. The thought of betraying a whole people to the corrupt authorities, is simply unstomachable for Yakov, even though he’s a self-proclaimed “free thinker.” Prometheus merely is asked to aid a tyrant in his ruthless attempts to retain power over the heavens. The refusal to submit to this opportunity commits Prometheus to eternal suffering.

All quotes from The Fixer by Bernard Malamud, Macmillan 2004 (page) or Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus translated by John Churtan Coidna (line)

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