“The Fixer” is a 1966 novel by the American author Bernard Malamud. The novel received the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The novel is a fictionalized account of the real story of a Jewish man named Menahem Mendel Beilis who was wrongfully imprisoned in the early 1900’s in Tsarist Russia. Beilis was later released when the case caught international disapproval.
In “The Fixer” a man named Yakov Bok leaves his village and his unfaithful wife to move to Kiev where he takes a job in a brickyard, despite the fact that it requires him to live in an area of the city that is forbidden to Jews.
Soon, a young boy is murdered and found near the brickyard and suspicion turns to Yakov after it is discovered that he is Jewish. He is put in prison without a trial and subjected to inhumane conditions for two years before his case finally gets reported on and receives some attention from the people in the city. Yakov finally gets a trial, and he ends the book feeling that he has made his point despite the outcome of the trial.
The novel begins with a short section in which the main character Yakov Bok becomes aware that a twelve-year old boy has been killed in a cave near his home. The boy is named Zhenia Golov. An anti-Semitic accuses the Jews of committing the murder in a series of pamphlets distributed in the town. This accusation worries Yakov as he lives in an area that he is technically forbidden to live in because he is Jewish.
The next section takes place five months before the murder and the discovery of the body. Yakov is leaving the village (or shtetl) that he lives in. Though he lives with his wife, Raisl, he is leaving her because she has been unfaithful to him. Raisl’s father, Shmuel visits Yakov before he leaves, offering him some money.
Some back story is revealed about Yakov. His mother died giving birth to him, and his father was killed by anti-Semites when he was only ten years old. He had been drafted into the military in the war between Russia and Japan, but the war ended before he saw any fighting. When he returned to the shtetl, he met his wife. Yakov leaves the shtetl with only a few things including his tools for his job as a fixer and some religious items.
Yakov is taken across a river by a boatman who speaks out against Jews and talks about a dark future for their kind. This makes Yakov dispose of the religious items he brought into the river. Yakov travels to Kiev where he immediately feels out of place as a Jew and a new immigrant. He doesn’t want to be recognized for his religion because it is dangerous. Though he visits an Orthodox church, he leaves when he is asked to join in. He tours the Lavra catacombs and sees religious relics. One of the relics, The Hand of Saint Andrew. Other travelers kiss the hand, but Yakov decides not to at the last moment.
When he gets to Kiev, Yakov moves into the poor Jewish section, the Podol. He stays with a printer’s assistant who has eight children and can only offer Yakov a bench to sleep on. Yakov searches for work in the district but is mostly unsuccessful.
One night, in a neighboring part of the city, Yakov spots a drunken man lying in the snow. He almost leaves the man as he sees that the man has a pin for a well-known anti-Semitic organization called the Black Hundreds on his lapel, but Yakov goes over to him and pulls him up. The man’s daughter sees this and rushes over to help. Between the two of them, they manage to get the man back into the house. The daughter tells Yakov that her name is Zinaida Nikolaevna and her father is Nikolai Maximovitch Lebedev.
The next day, the father asks for Yakov to come back. Lebedev offers Yakov a job repairing one of the apartments in the building as a reward. Yakov is unsure if he should be working in that neighborhood but decides to go because he needs the money. Yakov works in the apartment for a few weeks and is often visited by Zinaida who tells him that she is lonely. After the work is done, Lebedev is so pleased with Yakov’s work that he offers him a full-time position overseeing a brickyard that he recently inherited.
Yakov confesses that he has no experience overseeing brickyards, but Lebedev tells him that he only wishes to find a man with common sense and honesty. He also offers Yakov the option to live in the brickyard in a loft. Yakov realizes that Jews are not allowed to live or work in that neighborhood, so he worries about taking the job, but he takes it anyway. Zinaida invites him to a celebration and after they have a meal together, invites Yakov up to her room to have sex with her. Yakov initially goes along with this, but when he discovers that she is menstruating, he says that he cannot have sex with her because she is “unclean.” He leaves to Nickolaevna’s dismay.
Yakov begins working at the brickyard a few days later. He lies to everyone that his last name is Ivanovich, so they will not know that he is Jewish. He considers getting false papers and learns of a place where he can obtain them but is too nervous to do so.
One day he has to drive two young trouble making boys out of the brickyard. The next day he sees an old Hasidic man being terrorized by some boys in a graveyard. Despite his misgivings, Yakov helps the man by bringing him back to his home. The man has to stay with him overnight so that the early morning workers in the brickyard will not see him and realize that Yakov is a Jew. When he finally manages to get the man out, and on his way, Yakov returns to his house to the feeling that someone else came in while he was away.
The following day is the day from the first section of the novel when Yakov learns about the murdered boy. Yakov quickly realizes that the murdered boy is one of the boys that he chased out of the brickyard two days earlier. In response to the murder, the city begins raising the tide of anti-Semitism, as they are sure that it was committed by a Jew.
Yakov quickly hurries to the place that he heard he could obtain counterfeit papers, but it has been burned down. He hurries back to his house and packs his things, determining that he will flee to Amsterdam or possibly New York if he can make it that far. But just as he is leaving he is met on the stairs by a group of policemen who arrest him. Yakov confesses that he is a Jew but asserts that he is innocent of any crime besides living in a forbidden district.
Yakov is taken to the courthouse to be held in a jail cell. A man who introduces himself as B.A. Bibikov comes to the cell and tells him that he will be investigating the case. Bibikov asks Yakov some questions about his real name and his life. Bibikov tells Yakov that a book by the Jewish philosopher Spinoza was found in his house and asks whether or not Yakov read the book. Yakov admits that he read it but that he did not understand it completely.
Bibikov asks Yakov to put Spinoza’s concepts into his own words. At first, Yakov balks at this suggestion, but after Bibikov tells him that he enjoys Spinoza’s works himself, Yakov feels more comfortable. He says that Spinoza’s philosophies revolved around God and nature being one. Bibikov asks about the writings of Hegel and Karl Marx, and Yakov says that he is not familiar with them. Yakov, feeling that he is being led into a trap, navigates the conversation carefully. Finally, Bibikov leaves, leaving behind a questionnaire about Yakov.
The next day, Yakov discovers that Lebedev has told the police that he was suspicious of Yakov and that he never asked for his papers. Yakov explains on the questionnaire that he is Jewish by birth but that he does not practice the religion. Bibikov tells Yakov that if he is willing to officially leave the Jewish faith, it may help his case. Yakov says that he doesn’t want to do that.
The police bring out a deposition from Zinaida who is now claiming that Yakov assaulted her. She says that during the assault she was able to see that he was circumcised but that he never actually touched her. Yakov denies the accusation and claims that Zinaida invited him to her bedroom but that he left when he saw that she was menstruating. Bibikov tells Yakov that he believes him and that two letters have been found from Lebedev and Zinaida that contradict their statements.
A policeman named Grubeshov tells Yakov that some matzo bread has been found in his quarters. This is a type of bread that Jewish people eat during Passover. Yakov tells him that the bread belonged to the old Jewish man that he helped. Grubeshov then asks if he chased Zhenia Golov out of the brickyard. Back in his jail cell, Yakov is beaten by his two cellmates after they decide that he is guilty of killing the boy.
In the next chapter, Yakov is taken back to the brickyard by the police to reenact the crime. He is also taken to boy’s home and introduced to his mother, Marfa. When Marfa sees Yakov, she is certain that he is the man her son described as having chased him out of the brickyard. Marfa says that her son left home for school on Tuesday and never returned home. She assumed that he was at his grandmother’s house and did not worry about him. That night she fell ill and when she recovered and reported her son missing he was found shortly after that.
Marfa then says that her son and his friend were afraid of Yakov whom they referred to as “The Jew.” The boys told her that they had seen two older Jewish men going into Yakov’s house late at night and that Yakov had threatened to kill them. Bibikov begins questioning Marfa about her illustrious past before he is told by Grubeshov to stop questioning her. Bibikov managed to ask if Marfa’s lover had ever beat her son. Yakov is then taken to the cave where the boy’s body was found and where they say they found his tools. He claims that he is innocent, but Grubeshov urges him to confess.
A few days later, Yakov is told that he is going to be taken to Kiev prison to await his trial. Grubeshov tells Yakov that the police already knew he was guilty when they arrested him. All they want to know now is why he killed the boy and who put the idea in his head to do it. He says that if Yakov gives them a name they will not prosecute him to the same extent that they would have. Yakov talks back to Grubeshov and gets beaten by the guards. Grubeshov tells him that he intends to see that Yakov rots in prison forever. Yakov is taken to Kiev prison and put in a cell with other prisoners. His hair is left long because the guards think that it will make him look more Orthodox for the trial.
Yakov endures grueling, inhumane treatment in prison including beatings by other prisoners and guards as well as tainted food. One of the guards admits to the other prisoners in the cell that Yakov is a Jew, thinking that it will make them treat him even worse. But the other prisoners see Yakov’s Judaism as a good thing and believe that he is innocent because of it.
Yakov begins developing sores on his legs and feet. He is told that he can only go to the infirmary if he can walk there himself. Yakov is forced to crawl across and open yard to get to the infirmary because he cannot walk on the sores. At the infirmary, Yakov is given painful treatment. The surgeon says that the pain should help him appreciate the pain that he put Zhenia through.
After his operation, Yakov has put in a cell alone. Yakov is later made to give fingerprints to match a fingerprint that was found on Zhenia’s belt buckle. He was also asked for a hair sample and a handwriting sample. Yakov soon begins noticing that he is getting more food. He begins to get sick, however, and determines that someone is poisoning him. At first, the guards deny this, but later it is found that a Jew in the kitchen was poisoning him to stop him from confessing. But Yakov does not accept this explanation. He continues to fast for five more days until the warden of the prison commands him to eat. Yakov says that he will only eat if he is allowed to go to the kitchen to take food from the communal pot. After another day, the warden agrees.
Soon, Yakov begins reading the Bible and the guards comment on the fact that a “child killer” is reading Christ’s words. That Spring, a priest comes to Yakov’s cell to try and convince him to convert to Catholicism to help his case. But Yakov declines. In prison, Yakov struggles to maintain his sanity in the face of such torture. He often thinks about Raisl and reads the part in the Old Testament where God commands Hosea to marry a harlot. Yakov receives a letter from Marfa addressed to “the Murderer of Zhenia Golov”. The next morning, the letter was missing. The warden will only allow Yakov to write back if he confesses to the murder.
Yakov falls ill again and has vivid fever dreams about himself going insane and confessing to the murder. He dreams of Zhenia singing in the corner of his cell and the Black Hundreds coming after him.
One day, Shmuel arrives to visit Yakov. He managed to bribe a guard into letting him have ten minutes with Yakov. Yakov warns his father-in-law to leave before he gets in trouble. Shmuel asks how Yakov got into this situation and Yakov tells him that he was stupid. Shmuel asks if he has forgotten his god and Yakov says that god has forgotten him. Yakov is coming around to Spinoza’s writings, and he wonders if god exists at all. Shmuel urges him to read the Torah before he is hurried away by the guard. Yakov urges him to speak to the newspaper and some influential Jews to get him out. Unfortunately, the warden finds out about Shmuel’s visit, and he replaces Yakov’s guard with an ex-solider who is much harsher to Yakov. The guard, Berezhinsky uses Yakov for target practice, and body searches him six times a day.
Yakov’s wife, Raisl, makes a deal with the authorities that she will ask him to sign a confession if she is allowed to visit him. Raisl visits him, and she quickly asks for the confession before asking him how he is. She tells him that she wanted to see him let him know that she has had a child and that she wants him to be the child’s father. She gives him the paper on which he was supposed to write his confession, and he writes that he will not confess, but on the envelope, he writes down that he is the father of Raisl’s child and she pockets the envelope before leaving.
Yakov begins acting out against his captors in the hopes that they will kill him and end his misery. But soon he goes back on this and decides that he needs to stay alive to clear the Jewish people of the accusation that one of them killed Zhenia. Months later, Yakov is told that the Tsar plans to celebrate three hundred years of the rule of the House of Romonaov by pardoning some prisoners. Yakov is offered this pardon but he refuses it as accepting the pardon would mean confessing to the crime. He wants to have a trail instead.
Shortly before the trail, Grubeshov comes to Yakov’s cell and inadvertently tells him that there are people on the outside that support him. But he warns that even if Yakov is not found guilty, there will still be people outside who wish to kill him. He tells Yakov this in order to get him to confess, but Yakov stands resolute.
Yakov is finally brought to a lawyer named Ostrovsky several weeks later. He is told that Shmuel has died and he weeps. The lawyer tells Yakov that a newspaper discovered that Marfa and her lover spent her late husband’s insurance money that was meant for Zhenia. It was also discovered that someone saw Zhenia’s corpse in a bathtub at Marfa’s house. More months pass with Yakov still in prison. Yakov is finally granted a trial. The night before, he struggles to sleep, worrying that he will be attacked and killed in his cell to keep him from going to trial.
Before the trail is to begin, Yakov’s head is shaved, and he is given back his clothes to wear. Yakov is told by the warden that he should have confessed because he will probably be found guilty and spend his life in jail. In Yakov’s cell, there is a fight between the guard and the warden which ends in them shooting each other. Yakov is taken away in a carriage and on the way to his trial a bomb explodes. Yakov does not get injured, but one of his guards does. Regardless, the carriage continues. As Yakov continues to the trial, he sees the faces of the Jewish people watching him, some of whom are weeping. He knows that they know his name and that he has already achieved his goal.
Yakov Bok – the main character of the novel. Yakov is a Jewish man living in pre-revolutionary Russia. Yakov is falsely accused of the murder of a young boy and spends several years in prison being treated inhumanely. At the beginning of the novel, Yakov has discovered that his wife was cheating on him and leaves the village in which he lives to move to Kiev. Yakov is kind and helpful to a fault. His inability to leave behind someone in need is what drives a lot of the conflict of the novel. Yakov rescues a drunk man who later turns out to be Nikolai Lebedev, an anti-Semite who offers him a job and a house without knowing that he is Jewish. Despite this seeming like a good thing at first, it puts Yakov in danger and in the position to later be the scapegoat for the murdered boy.
Yakov also saves the old Jewish man from being attacked by children in the graveyard. When the man is seen coming out of Yakov’s house, it is used as evidence against him when he is arrested. Yakov claims to not be a practicing Jew, and much of his defense relies upon this. But over the course of the novel, he becomes somewhat more in touch with his faith as well as the Christian faith.
In the end, Yakov seems to forgive his wife and offer his inheritance for the baby she is carrying. As he drives away in the wagon he feels that whatever the verdict his court case ends in, he has already proved his point.
Shmuel – Yakov’s father-in-law. Shmuel is a good man who believes in Yakov’s innocence. He offers Yakov money and kind words even as he is leaving his wife, Shmuel’s daughter. When Yakov is in prison, Shmuel risks retaliation in order to visit him and asks if he is alright. When Yakov hears that Shmuel has passed away, he cries.
Nikolai Lebedev – Yakov’s boss at the brickyard. Lebedev is first brought into the narrative as a drunk who has fallen down in the snow and needs to be rescued by Yakov. Lebedev is revealed to be a wealthy man who owns a brickyard that he offers Yakov a job in. However, he is also a noted anti-Semite who turns on Yakov the moment that he discovers the man is Jewish.
Zinaida Lebedev – Nikolai’s daughter. Zinaida initially tries to seduce Yakov but is rejected by him when he discovers that she is menstruating. Later, when Yakov is arrested, Zinaida insists that he sexually assaulted her but is proven lying by Bibikov.
Bernard Malamud Biography
Bernard Malamud was born on April 26th, 1914 in Brooklyn, New York. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Malamud grew up in a poor family during the height of the Great Depression. After graduating high school, Malamud trained for a year to be a teacher before entering City College of New York on a government loan. In 1936, he graduated with his BA degree. He then enrolled in Columbia University and graduated for years later with a masters degree, writing his thesis on the author Thomas Hardy.
Because he was supporting his widowed father, he was excused from military service during World War II. He went on to work at the census bureau in Washington D.C. before returning to New York to teach English to adults.
In 1949, Malamud began teaching at Oregon State University, and it was there that he began writing regularly. His first published novel was completely in 1952 and was titled “The Natural.” The novel went on to be very successful and was turned into a 1984 movie starring Robert Redford. In 1945, Malamud married Ann De Chiara, and the two went on to have two children together. Ann was the one who typed his manuscripts and reviewed them.
Malamud published only seven more novels in his lifetime. Two of his more famous ones were “The Assistant” (1957) and “The Fixer” (1966). Malamud was also well known for his short stories, many of which revolved around immigrants. In 1961, Malamud took a job teaching creative writing at Bennington College where he continued to work until his retirement.
Malamud died at the age of 71 in Manhattan on March 18th, 1986. He was buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On the 100 year anniversary of Malamud’s birth, there were many tributes and celebrations of his life. Malamud’s current publisher released several new introductions’ to his work online, and Oregon State University celebrated him as one “of the most recognized faculty members.” Malamud’s daughter Janna went on to write a memoir about her father titled “My Father is a Book.”