Jacob the Liar (Jakob Der Lügner)
JACOB THE LIAR (Jakob der Lügner)
Novel by Jurek Becker, 1969
The concept for Jakob der Lügner first appeared in a film script Jurek Becker wrote around 1962. When sensitivity to Soviet reception of the film lead to the East German government halting its production, Becker transformed the script into a novel (1969). The novel was published in English in 1975 and in a new translation in 1996. The title character is an unwilling hero who captures the attention of his fellow Jews in a Nazi-run ghetto by supplying them with news of the Soviet army's imminent liberation of the ghetto—news garnered from an overheard radio broadcast. Many readers will be captivated by the novel's poetic language and by the humor with which people in this most horrifying place confront life and death. This novel, which can be an entertaining and funny read, also has much to say, however, about the mechanisms of power and the truths that support it.
The "lie" of the title refers to Jakob's lies about having a radio. Jakob's first report of the advancing Soviets is real, but when ghetto residents begin asking for follow-up stories, Jakob refuses their requests, until he realizes that his story has brought the rarest of commodities to the ghetto: hope. In order to maintain that hope, he must manufacture news. The notion that lies can produce positive and desired results—results that are accepted as truth—points to one of the novel's major themes: the role of narrative in the production of truth.
The world of Becker's novel is untruthful on several levels. As an historic depiction of a Nazi-run ghetto, it lacks accuracy. On an even broader level, truth and lies have become entirely inverted in the ghetto. Horrendous acts, such as murder, starvation, deportation, and humiliation, have become commonplace truths, while things common outside the ghetto, such as watches, trees, and hope have become criminal or untruthful.
Becker's characters react to this bizarre world—this new "truth" imposed by the Nazis—in different ways. Though he is the only one in the ghetto to have an actual radio, the actor Frankfuter destroys it without ever listening in to a single broadcast. He tacitly accepts the Nazis' lies, hoping to survive them. In contrast, Dr. Kirschbaum, a renowned cardiologist, grasps an opportunity to free himself from the twisted values of the Nazis, in the process committing the only overt act of resistance in the novel. In Lina, the young orphan, we see a lack of experience outside the ghetto that would have provided the critical capacity to distinguish between truth and lies. Rosa, on the other hand, represents more critical approaches to truth and lies. The painful reality of losing her parents places her in opposition to the hopeful optimism of Jakob's fictional news. Through these characters, Becker invites readers to consider the ways we react to truth and lies.
With Jakob's character, Becker takes the additional step of examining the production of truth. In his various attempts to find real news to incorporate into his fictional "broadcasts," Jakob learns that transforming truth into lies is difficult. Clearly, he learns, the lines between truth and lies are sometimes blurred. At the same time, Jakob realizes that those with the ability to produce truth gain control and power. This realization is vital to an understanding of the Holocaust and the mechanisms by which dictatorships take control.
Becker's examination of the mechanisms of truth production is underscored by the structure of Jakob the Liar. A modern-day narrator establishes a narrative frame around the linear main narrative of Jakob's story. The narrator's attempts to get the facts of Jakob's story, and to warn us when he cannot, establish narration as the dominant theme of the novel.
The most dramatic example of narrative possibilities and of the role of narration in establishing truth comes at the conclusion of the novel, when the narrator provides two possible endings. The contrast between the two—one true, the other a lie—highlights the tension between truth and lies that pervades the novel. This tension encourages readers to examine the truth content of the text in order to discern who is defining truth and how the process of definition affects the story and its interpretation.
The theme of truth and lies and the two endings also offer a critique of socialist realism, a literary doctrine that insisted on positive heroes and constructive, forward-looking themes. At the same time, the novel subverts traditional antifascist interpretations of the Holocaust still sanctioned at that time in East Germany. By questioning these doctrines, and by showing the disastrous consequences of insisting on adherence to specific truths, Jakob the Liar questions the use of power inherent in the production of truth and furthers understanding of the misuses of power during the Holocaust and since.