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Although initially dismissed by many reviewers—(here’s John Updike, condemning it alongside Hamlet: “an orgy of argumentation . . . too many characters, numerous long speeches, and a vacillating, maddening hero”)—Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock (1993) has undergone something of a critical renaissance in the new millennium. Perhaps this is because it feels more immediately present than much of Roth’s wide oeuvre: John Demjanjuk’s trials continued until 2011; a Second Intifada has come and gone, with rumblings, perhaps, of a Third. And now, courtesy of the New York Metropolitan Opera, even Leon Klinghoffer is back in the news.

This production of John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer has been surrounded by controversy since it was announced—and as the protests crested around last week’s premiere, the scene began to resemble something that Roth himself might have created: appeals to Jewishness and to the integrity of Art; little old ladies, Chabad missionaries, and Rudy Giuliani all joining in protest of an opera they had most likely never seen.

But to those who have read Roth’s novel, the controversy might already feels like old news. Its protagonist (also named Philip Roth) is drawn to Israel as an Intifada rages and John Demjanjuk is tried on charges of having been the notorious Treblinka guard “Ivan the Terrible,” a trip prompted by the discovery of a doppelganger touring Europe and Israel to promote the dissolution of Israel for the sake of “Diasporism”: a return of the Jews to Eastern Europe. In the lobby of the King David Hotel, Roth is accosted by an antiquarian named Supposnik, who thrusts two small travel diaries into the novelist’s hands.

Written, supposedly, by Leon Klinghoffer—“The defenseless Jew crippled in a wheelchair that the brave Palestinian freedom fighters shot in the head and threw into the Mediterranean Sea”—it describes “happier trips” from the late 1970s. If only Roth will write the introduction, he is told, its publication will further the task of Anne Frank’s Diary: testifying to Jewish suffering and thereby answering the slanders of Shylock and Fagin.

As he reads through the diaries—and assuming that behaving for once like a Nice Jewish Boy and writing “a serious introduction, with the correct Jewish outlook” will release him from the postmodern maze he has stumbled into—Roth begins to scribble notes: 

“Would Jews without enemies be just as boring as everybody else? These diaries suggest as much. What makes extraordinary all the harmless banality is the bullet in the head.

“Without the Gestapo and the PLO, these two Jewish writers (A.F. and L.K.) would be unpublished and unknown [. . .] Ordinariness. Blandness. Uneventful monotony. Unembattled existence. The repetitious security of one’s own little cruise. But this is not to be. The incredible drama of being a Jew.”

Roth (both character and author) doesn’t even pretend to believe any of this. Writing at a time when Klinghoffer was not only the subject of an acclaimed avant-garde opera, but also of multiple television movies, he would rather we let the man’s ghost sleep. When those who don’t know him acclaim him as either a hero or a paradigm for Jewish victimhood, they remake him in their own image. The comparison with Anne Frank is significant—Roth’s The Ghost Writer (1979) imagines an Anne Frank who survived the Holocaust but loses her identity behind the fame of her diary.

The challenge Operation Shylock offers against The Death of Klinghoffer goes further than this. Just as Adams and his librettist, Alice Goodman, pair the stories of the Klinghoffers with those of their terrorist captors, Roth pairs the question of Klinghoffer’s simultaneous banality and significance with that of Demjanjuk. Watching the trial, Roth is perplexed by the distance between the defense’s account of a “hardworking, churchgoing, family man . . . a father of three grown American children, a skilled autoworker with Ford, a decent, law-abiding American citizen renowned . . . in his Cleveland suburb for his wonderful vegetable garden” and the prosecution’s Ivan the Terrible who “once took a drill and bored a hole right in someone’s buttocks—felt like it that day, so he did it” and delighted in Treblinka’s “One continuous party! Blood! Vodka! Women! Death! Power! And the screams! Those unending screams! And all of it work, good, hard work and yet wild, wild untainted joy—the joy most people only get to dream of, nothing short of ecstasy!”

Roth can see in the man both the extraordinary cruelty and the ordinary suburban life—and can believe in the reality of both. He stops short, however, of trying to explain how one develops into the other. “The Germans,” he notes, “have proved definitively . . . that to maintain two radically divergent personalities, one very nice and the other not so nice, is no longer the prerogative of psychopaths only.” The ordinary life in Cleveland can be true without undermining, or relating causally, to the life of cruelty as a camp guard. Understanding the reality of evil is a task that does not always involve tracing its origin to a cause. Sometimes it just is.

The eruption of evil into the ordinary is an apt description of Roth’s writings from 1990 on. In American Pastoral, an absolutely normal—indeed, idyllic—childhood doesn’t stop Merrie Levov from murdering innocents as a terrorist; The Human Stain witnesses nihilistic and petty vindictiveness (even by Roth’s standards); The Plot Against America watches Nazis grow in Newark suburbs. Roth sees a potential for darkness and depravity in the human heart that he does not try to explain away—reading him often enough, one comes to suspect that he does not believe it can be explained away. When he is accused of self-hatred, it is for insisting that Jews, despite a history of suffering, are still capable of succumbing to this darkness; when he is accused of misogyny, it is for implying that women may be more capable than men.

The Death of Klinghoffer, on the other hand, seeks—as its creators have pointed out again and again—to understand both victim and murderer, to understand how victimhood can lead to murder and murder to victimhood. They want to find and tack to the wall the very action that transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary. And here is the moral distance between Philip Roth and The Death of Klinghoffer: as much as one can understand the connection between suffering and Palestinian nationalism (or, for that matter, suffering and Zionism), only in Roth does the act of murder push one into the penumbra of evil, where actions can no longer be comprehended, explained, or even justified—only condemned, punished, and rightfully feared.

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