[(essay date 2004) In the following essay, Sterling documents the legal trial and unjust imprisonment of the protagonist in The Fixer, relating his sufferings to anti-Semitism and judicial corruption.]
Bernard Malamud's novel The Fixer (1966), winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, concerns the abuse and corruption that existed within the pre-Revolutionary Russian legal system because of virulent anti-semitism and an unstable political situation. An analysis of the structural features of the book, along with an examination of the nightmarish legal system, prejudicial historical context, and ghoulish ethnic superstitions that enmesh the hapless title character, can enable readers to grasp more fully both the immensity of his dilemma and the enormity of his partial victory. A victim of circumstance, the title character is abused by a judicial system that intends to scapegoat a Jew in order to control public opinion for religious, nationalistic, and political reasons. Although an idealistic lawyer attempts to prove the Jew's innocence, he is no match for a corrupt and prejudicial legal system intent upon prosecuting an innocent man in order to preserve the tsar's power and reinforce traditional antisemitic beliefs that prove to be an integral fabric of the contemporary society. Although the unscrupulous and bigoted legal system causes the title character great harm, the abuses that he endures result in his moral growth.
Yakov Bok, a fixer (i.e., carpenter and painter), is falsely accused of committing a ritual murder--a killing of a Christian by a Jew in order to drain and then use the blood of the victim to make Passover matzos. (The misguided belief in the practice of ritual murder originated in Norwich, England in 1144,1 evolving and proliferating because of ignorance about, and prejudice and hatred toward, Jews). Although the story of Yakov Bok is fictional, it is based on a true story involving Mendel Beiliss, who also was confronted by, and was eventually acquitted of, a false charge of ritual murder in 1913 in Kiev. Along with the Alfred Dreyfus legal affair in France, the Beiliss case exists as the most notorious antisemitic trial in modern world history.2 Like Beiliss, Bok must confront false accusations based on malicious prejudice and on superstition, and he must battle a corrupt legal system controlled by antisemitic prosecutors and influenced by Jew-hating witnesses and law officers.
As The Fixer begins, Bok, because of desperate financial circumstances, reluctantly agrees to work for a prominent member of the Black Hundreds, a notorious antisemitic Russian organization that greatly influenced the Nazis in Germany. Hiding his Jewish heritage because he fears the vicious, prevalent antisemitism and because he lives illegally in a district forbidden to Jews, Bok becomes the supervisor in a brickyard where the employees steal rampantly and where a roguish boy, Zhenia Golov, routinely trespasses. Bok earns the enmity of his employees by watching them vigilantly, thus preventing their thefts. For example, the foreman Proshko, embittered by his inability to steal, spies on Bok, searching his apartment and observing him chase Golov...