The story itself is a simple one. Yakov Bok is a Jewish "fixer"--someone who knows how to fix things, like broken chairs and uneven doors--in tsarist Russia in 1911, when the Communist revolution is brewing and the rich and powerful are looking for scapegoats. Big things are afoot. It's a dangerous time to be a Jew, even if you play by the rules.
And Yakov doesn't play by the rules, although he doesn't do anything wrong by design or intention. Yakov just wants to live his life, and maybe improve it a little. He isn't particularly smart or ambitious, and he's not political. He just wants to get along in the world, essentially by minding his own business, with a little time for philosophy here and there. In a way it's the very smallness and simplicity of his approach that makes things go so wrong.
Deserted by his wife, Yakov leaves his home town for the big city, to make his way in the world. He rescues a drunken man who has collapsed in the street. The man, when he recovers, turns out to be a wealthy factory owner. He offers Yakov a job. Yakov is afraid to take it, because he has no identity papers for his false name, and because the man belongs to a dangerous anti-Semitic group. But Yakov needs the money, and he's afraid to refuse because the explanation--that he's Jewish--would probably create trouble.
Yakov takes the path of least resistance. He's a decent, hardworking man, so he does excellent work, all the time trying to mind his own business. Which leads to more trouble: The rich man offers him an even better job that requires him to live in a part of the city where Jews are forbidden to live. Yakov's diligence at his new job alienates the dishonest workers he supervises. The rich man's spinster daughter develops an interest in Yakov, which leads to a mildly compromising situation. And Yakov helps an elderly Jewish man who has been attacked by some cruel boys, briefly taking the old man into his apartment and wiping his bloody brow.
All these little things become incredibly damning when a young boy is murdered and Yakov is wrongfully accused of the crime. His innocent actions, viewed through a different lens, make him seem like a criminal Jewish rogue, piling transgression upon transgression as part of a sinister Jewish design. It's all completely false, but Yakov ends up in prison, without a lawyer, without charges, without a hearing, without even a friend who knows where he is.
This remarkable novel carries echoes of two other works: the Biblical story of Job and the story of Mersault in The Stranger. Like Job, when Yakov believes his circumstances couldn't get any worse, they do--and he realizes things really weren't so bad before, in comparison. Like Mersault, Yakov initially seems curiously detached from his own life. He figuratively shrugs his shoulders at the choices offered to him. He seems merely along for the ride, rather than active in his own life.
And yet, it's the result of these events and this lack of interest that make this novel so incredible. As Yakov's physical circumstances are reduced, the life Yakov lives in his mind expands immeasurably. Yakov sees his unfaithful wife, his former life, even his jailers with new insight. He retains his ability to step back from his life and see, from his tiny cell, the big picture of events and his role in them, but he's no longer detached. This essential tension between inner life and outer life are movingly, memorably portrayed. The contrast between Yakov's ruined, imprisoned body and his liberated, engaged mind make this novel one to return to.
All these words, and I still haven't done it justice.
"Why me?" he asked himself for the ten thousandth time. Why did it have to happen to a poor, half-ignorant fixer? Who needed this kind of education? Education he would have been satisfied to get from books. Each time he answered his question he answered it differently. He saw it as part personal fate--his various shortcomings and mistakes--but also the force of circumstance, though how you separated one from the other--if one really could--was beyond him. . . . Go find your fate--try first the fat Russian with his face in the snow. Go be kind to an anti-Semite and suffer for it. And from him to his daughter with the crippled leg was only one crippled step, and then another into the brickyard. And a crippled hop into prison. If he had stayed in the shtetl it would never have happened. At least not this. Something else would have happened, better not think what.