Operation Shylock | Philip Roth

novel | autobiographical | fiction

First published 1993

Operation Shylock by Philip Roth on green blog and books background with spiral logo and text




"...isn't a colossal, enduring injustice enough

to drive a decent mad mad?"

Roth's meta novel, Operation Shylock, is set against the background of the real-life trial of alleged Nazi war criminal, John Demjanjuk, who was known as the notoriously brutal Ivan the Terrible at Treblinka extermintaion camp where he was a non-German collaborator working as a camp guard. Roth is visiting Israel to interview his friend, fellow author (another real person), Aharon Appelfeld, and has discovered that his doppelgänger, also called Philip Roth, is in Israel promoting the idea of "Diasporism". He claims that this is the only credible solution to make Israel and the Jewish disapora worldwide safe again. He proposes that the Jews who emmigrated to Israel after World War 2 should return to their European countries of origin. Using his name and his uncanny resemblance to the real Philip Roth, the fake Philip Roth has achieved a certain level of celebrity status and has met with world leaders to discuss the theory and possible inmplementation of diasporism.

The real Roth is horrified that his name (and face) are being used to promote this idea, but becomes increasingly obsessed with fake Roth, naming him Moishe Pipik (Moses Bellybutton in Yiddish). At the end of the novel their personalities have almost become indistinguishable from one another, and the line between reality and imagination are well and truly blurred. The battle for identity and ideological supremacy unfolds against the backdrop of the Demjanjuk trail and the First Intifada, and the incredibly complex relationship that Israel has with its diaspora: A theme that is common throughout Philip Roth's fiction in general.

"The alphabet is all there to protect me;

it's what I was given instead of a gun."

The novel weaves together a multitude of threads, from historical events, personal dilemmas and competing ideological conflicts. At the end of the novel, real Philip Roth is kidnapped and then recruited by a Mossad agent called Smilesburger. He is asked to help with their operation, which is the title of the book. The mission's aim is to root out American Jews who allegedly provide financial backing to the Palestinain Liberation Organization. After the publication of the book, Roth insisted that the events in the book were real and that he had called it fiction at the urging of Mossad.

My Verdict

I read this book after it was recommended by Naomi Klein in her latest book, Doppelganger. I have read quite a few Roth novels in the past, and they are all interesting and he was definitley a master of modern American literature. This novel was so meta, and at times a little confusing. It wasn't always clear whose voice I was hearing, which, I guess, was the whole point. There were parts where I felt the level of detail was overwhelming and unnecessary, but the overall story was pretty fascinating and I did find myself having to look up things to check if they were real or not. Reading this against the background of the current Israel/Hamas conflict was also pretty unnerving, as it seems that nothing much has changed in the 31 years since this book was published. Overall, this is a book that highlights Roth's unmatchable genius. 

Published 23.01.2024

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