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Ironies Within Ironies

Latest novel by Philip Roth is an ongoing argument with himself

ALTHOUGH his publisher classifies this book as fiction, Philip Roth claims in his preface that "Operation Shylock" is "as accurate an account as I am able to give of actual occurrences," including the author's role in an "operation for Israel's foreign intelligence service, the Mossad."

But his "Note to the Reader" at the back of the book makes the opposite claim: "This book is a work of fiction...." Then again, within the story itself, a character called Smilesburger, who's supposed to be the Israeli intelligence officer who recruited Roth, urges him to append just such a disclaimer.

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Suffice it to report that a major theme of "Operation Shylock" is the difficulty of telling the real from the fake, fact from fiction. If the imagination can fabricate a world that seems real, how do we know the real world is not a fabrication? If history is a set of agreed-upon lies, how can we tell which version to believe? By now, so many variations have been spun on this theme as to render Roth's latest spin on the postmodernist merry-go-round just a little de trop.

Apart from his say-so, there seems little reason to believe that the author was recruited as a spy or that "Operation Shylock" is anything but fiction. And, indeed, the publicity-grabbing fact-or-fiction controversy obscures some of the more interesting aspects of this rather brilliant, ingenious, funny, serious, self-riddling, and often challenging novel.

The story is built around the confrontation of two men who are doubles. From a phone call from an Israeli friend - the novelist Aharon Appelfeld - the protagonist, Philip Roth, author of "Letting Go" (1962), "Portnoy's Complaint" (1969), "The Ghost Writer" (1979), and "The Counterlife" (1987), learns that someone else who calls himself Philip Roth is running around Israel preaching a doctrine called "Diasporism."

And this second Philip Roth has no objection to being mistaken for the famous writer. It lends clout to his campaign. How else, as he points out, could he have gotten an audience with Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa to discuss the idea of resettling Jews in Poland?

Shocked at what's being said and done in his name, the "real" Roth takes off for Israel, where he's been planning to interview Appelfeld for the New York Times. (This interview really did occur.) In Jerusalem, Roth also attends the war-crimes trial of John Demjanjuk (which was, indeed, going on at the time), and meets up with his double: a slightly more handsome version of himself ("he looked like the after to my before in the plastic surgeon's advertisement," Roth notes), who dresses in almost exactly the same clothes, down to the missing button on his jacket.

While the second Roth greets the first with the wild adulation of a lifelong fan, the first Roth threatens the second with legal action. Roth No. 2 denies that he's an imposter: He is merely a similar-looking man with the same name. Surely, he tells the outraged author, "there would have been another fifty little Jewish boys of our age growing up to look like us if it hadn't been for certain tragic events ... in Europe between 1939 and 1945.... You, from your career perspective, may think it's horrible t hat there are two of us and that you are not unique. From my Jewish perspective, I have to say I think it's horrible that only two are left."

And so we see Philip Roth, who has often been criticized by the Jewish community for tarnishing its image by portraying unattractive Jewish characters, ironically besieged by another Philip Roth he dearly longs to censor.

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Roth No. 2 (whom Roth No. l mockingly nicknames Moishe Pipik, or Moses Bellybutton) is consumed by the fear that Zionism is the latest threat to the Jewish people. To save the Israeli Jews from destruction at the hands of their hostile Arab neighbors or to save them from becoming destroyers themselves, Pipik has a plan to resettle Israeli Jews of European origin back in their "true" homeland, Europe. He even has a remedy for residual European anti-Semitism: a program modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, call ed Anti-Semites Anonymous, designed to help those afflicted with bigotry take responsibility for their attitudes and actions instead of blaming their problems on Jews.

Although Roth No. l ridicules this crazy plan and is even more derisive of Roth No. 2, before long he finds himself being mistaken for the wild-eyed prophet of Diasporism and, what's more, admired for his courage in bucking the Zionist establishment. For reasons not quite clear to himself, he goes along with the charade, which involves him in a bizarre series of misadventures with a warm-hearted Polish-American "recovering anti-Semite" who is Pipik's mistress and acolyte; a Palestinian man overjoyed at f inding a potential anti-Zionist ally; and the benevolent but manipulative Mossad agent who wants to use him as a kind of double-agent.

This is a novel of ironies within ironies - less a story than an ongoing argument that its author is having with himself: no simple debate over the pros and cons of Zionism, but a hydra-headed free-for-all about anti-Semitism, Jewish identity, artistic responsibility, political expediency, moral imperatives, and more.

Where Roth finally stands on these issues is difficult to determine: One suspects that he is not quite sure himself. Toward the end of the novel, the sagacious Smilesburger gently berates Roth's whole enterprise, in this book and in his previous work, for the sin of loshon hora - making hurtful remarks about individuals, groups, other Jews, even about oneself. Amid the cacophony of criticism and self-criticism, the babel of voices that make up this novel, Smilesburger puts in a plea for silence: an end t o "everyone saying something derogatory about everyone else."

It may not be a likely, or perhaps even wholly desirable, option for Roth or for humankind in general, but it's the perfect counterweight to his self-enfolding, self-renewing argument with himself.

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