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Howard Jacobson after winning the Man Booker Prize in London on Tuesday.

Reuters

Years ago, as an ice-breaker in our Jewish conversion class, my fellow students and I were given a questionnaire and asked to write down our Favourite Jewish Personality. I put "Groucho Marx" (eager to be a member of his club); the others divided themselves between Team Adam Sandler and Team David Ben-Gurion; and the earnest young woman next to me, after giving the matter great thought, printed the following: HAPPY.

Julian Treslove, the human nucleus of Howard Jacobson's Man Booker Prize-winning The Finkler Question, is this lady's opposite. He too wants to be Jewish - but he is less attracted by the prospect of joyful holidays and ethical rigour than he is by Jewish pain and terror. Mugged one night on a London street, he swears he hears his attacker uttering anti-Semitic epithets. Did he? Maybe, maybe not. But only someone marinated for so many years in the absence of oppression could desire victimhood this badly.

Julian is a fascinating character, at once strikingly empty and richly sui generis. "You don't know what you are so you want to be a Jew," says his Jewish friend Sam Finkler, a successful pop philosopher. This is true: Treslove works as a celebrity double, resembling no famous person in particular but all of them in general. Professionally and personally, his life has been crowded with a series of cardboard cutaway wives, children and jobs. Pushing 50, he yearns for something permanent.

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But on a much more sinister level, he also suffers from a "Mimi Complex," fantasizing that the women he loves will die in his arms in the manner of La Boheme's doomed heroine. Thus, he is somewhat blinded to the essential strength and intelligence of his Jewish girlfriend Hephzibah, preferring instead to see her both as an exemplar of historical sorrow and as ethnic with a capital E. Really, it's an incredibly creepy relationship, and Hephzibah knows it: "On some nights she would have preferred watching a soap opera on television to discussing circumcision or Moses Maimonides."

What Treslove wants most of all - without benefit of birthright or formal study - is to obtain the habit of "thinking Jewishly." But as the novel shows us, nobody has a firm lock on how to do that. Is Finkler thinking Jewishly when he becomes an ardent anti-Zionist in childhood, attempting to enlist in the Palestinian air force? (" 'The Palestinians don't have an air force,' Treslove replied. 'Precisely', Finkler said.' ") And what of the Jewish Libor Sevcik, former teacher to both men, roiling with pain after the death of his wife? He prefers citizenship in Vonnegut's "nation of two," where the ethnicity he shared with his wife was, like everything else in their happy home, something wonderfully private.

Treslove's quest, then, is quixotic in the extreme. But it's a perfect way for Jacobson to explore virtually every cranny of modern Jewish identity. He even devotes several scathingly funny pages to the activities of a "foreskin restoration" activist: If that isn't completion, I don't know what is.

Not everyone will love The Finkler Question. Hilarious and romantic at the start, it becomes more and more discomfiting as it progresses, especially in its chilling depiction of modern anti-Semitism. If the reader yearns (like my old classmate) for Jewish happiness, Jacobson - truly one of our funniest writers - is more than willing to provide it. It's just that happiness isn't the whole story.

Cynthia Macdonald is a Toronto critic and journalist.

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