Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'We are more than nothing and deserve better'

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Many of the problems and predicaments we find ourselves facing in life are the result of the simple fact that, as individuals or as members of a group, we are not as free as we sometimes think we are.

This oppression may not be so much a problem -- a problem, after all, implies there is a solution -- as it is a condition of life that we all have to live with, but that does not mean there are not ways to deal with it.

In his 1966 novel The Fixer, Bernard Malamud gives us a hint of how to do that. Malamud was the best of an extraordinary group of Jewish novelists who burst onto the American and international literary scene in the 1960s.

The Fixer was one of his early novels and perhaps his finest. It tells the story of a Russian Jew accused of the ritual murder of a Christian baby in the dying years of the czarist empire. Yakov Bok spends years in jail as the authorities try to force him to confess to a crime he did not commit. There is no evidence against him except for the fact that he is a Jew, and the fact that he is a Jew is good enough for a government attempting to appease a public outraged over the murder.

He refuses to confess, even under torture, even, as years pass and his case becomes a public issue, refusing a pardon on the grounds that he is innocent. He demands a trial. The Investigating Magistrate for Cases of Extraordinary Importance, Bibikov, who is the only person who cares that Yakov might actually be innocent, at one point asks him out of frustration: "What are you?" To which Yakov Bok replies: "I am a man who, although nothing much, is still more than nothing."

That is the message Malamud offers us about freedom, about dignity, about fighting the oppressions life offers us in their greater and lesser forms. No matter how insignificant we may seem, even how irrelevant we may be in the grand scheme of things, we are still something and, when we assert that, we defy our oppressors in whatever forms they might take -- disadvantage, desolation, deprivation, disease, despair or any other D-word you can think of.

Yakov Bok's response to Bibikov's question seems extraordinary, given his plight and the conditions of his imprisonment, but it is not really -- or at least it should not be. "I am more than nothing" are words everyone should wake up thinking and live each day believing. Perhaps if we could all do that -- call me Pollyanna if it pleases you -- we would all have lives that are a little better or at least a little more dignified.

Native Canadians in places such as Attawapiskat First Nation and other isolated reserves, who live in a poverty so desperate that no one, neither their band councils nor the federal government, seems to be able to explain it, should say "we are more than nothing and we demand better than this."

Core area kids who grow up in poverty and deprivation should turn from gangs that can offer them so little and tell their parents and the system and the people -- that's us -- "we are more than nothing and we deserve better than this."

Even suburbanites, the middle-class, middle-income, middle-waisted hired help who wander off to work each day to their endless and unappreciated treadmills of tedium, should stand up and say "we are more than nothing, and we will stand with everybody else in demanding acknowledgement of that." If we all say it, shout it and believe it, then perhaps we can alleviate the injustices of life. That's only a perhaps, of course. The Fixer ends with Yakov Bok getting the trial he demanded. Malamud doesn't tell us anything about the verdict.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 3, 2011 A19

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