Paul Goldberg, author of "The Yid."

Paul Goldberg, author of "The Yid." Credit: Gilles Frydman

THE YID, by Paul Goldberg. Picador, 320 pp., $26.

Paul Goldberg first learned of what most people call “the blood libel” when he was a boy in Moscow. The father of a friend explained that “a Jewess” had been arrested nearby for killing a girl and using her blood to make matzo.

Long since an American, Goldberg now turns this ancient anti-Semitic lie on its head (quite literally, when his tale reaches its climax) in “The Yid,” an absorbing historical page-turner that somehow wrings delight from the terrible suffering of his native land since the Russian Revolution. Although it doesn’t involve Hitler, the story is perhaps an American Jew’s next-best revenge fantasy: a couple of wisecracking Jewish war veterans team up with a Yiddish speaking African-American engineer and a fearless young half-Jewish orphan to thwart Stalin’s plans for a second Holocaust.

Its Hollywood appeal notwithstanding, the book is much better than it sounds — and does such a fine job of recreating its sinister milieu that it’s worth taking a moment to sort out what’s real and what’s not. Novelist Thomas Mallon reminds us that nouns trump adjectives, and the term “historical fiction” is his favorite example. Stalin certainly persecuted the Jews, and in 1953, as his paranoia reached its nadir, the Soviet terror apparatus concocted a bogus plot in which a group of mostly Jewish physicians were said to be murdering top officials. There’s also some evidence that Stalin may have planned mass deportations of Jews from Russian cities.

Goldberg pushes and pulls history as needed to work his magic. The adventure begins when the police arrive in the middle of the night to arrest the learned Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, an aging actor somehow swept up in Stalin’s purges. Levinson lulls his captors with a fog of theatrical nostalgia and Yiddish singsong — which makes the subsequent lethal eruption of this ruthless former guerrilla all the more shocking.

Then Friederich Robertovich Lewis shows up. An African-American émigré often taken by Russians to be Paul Robeson, he is implicated by association, and before long he and Levinson are joined, at a hideaway in Moscow’s answer to the Catskills, by two co-conspirators: Levinson’s former machine-gunner, the Jewish physician Aleksandr Sergeyevich Kogan; and tightly wound Kima Yefimovna Petrova, in her own way as ruthless as Levinson. Petrova has been monitoring local gossip — and the movement of trains — and the others soon agree: emulating Hitler, Stalin plans his own campaign of extermination against the Jews. The only thing to be done, they decide, is to kill him, an effort that will involve a vengeful twist on the blood libel.

It’s a good story, but what makes this such a terrific book is the author’s confident mastery of the world he immerses us in, the fascinating and tragic back stories he weaves with little loss of narrative momentum, and his conspiratorial relationship to the reader. The term “authorial asides” doesn’t do justice to the function Goldberg’s narrator performs, with his easy grasp of Yiddish, Russian and the furious animosities lurking just beneath the multiethnic surface of the USSR. The narrator’s knowing presence is one of several factors, including dialogue presented as if in a play, that gives us the feeling we are not so much reading a novel as attending a live performance.

The face paint, costume changes and bravura underdogs will remind cinema-savvy readers of “To Be or Not to Be,” the 1942 theater comedy with Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, and the impression of live theater is enhanced by an explicit three-act structure and characters given to profane Socratic dialogues presented in script form. These are in keeping with what seems at first a Passover story (think of the questions and answers at a Seder) but may instead be a Purim tale. No matter; just reading the book is a kind of holiday, whatever the calendar says.

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