Question2: The Use and Function of Humor in Becker’s Novel
Jakobthe Liar is an interesting story that recounts the experiences ofordinary people in a ghetto after the Second World War. The Jews wereliving under very strict rules in a Nazi-occupied region. Jakob, arestaurant owner, uses lies to give the Jewish people a sense of hopeduring a time of despair (Meirich 21). The author gives a verydescriptive account of the events to show the readers the problemsthe Jews encountered. Even so, humor plays a significant role inJurek Becker’s novel to moderate the terrible truth, revitalize thepostwar German-Jewish literary subculture, give hope to the Jews, andcreate a narrative contrast.
Beckeruses humor as a sign of hope among the survivors. According to Jakob,jokes are a gift for his friends and other people in the ghetto(Reimer and Reimer 98-99). Therefore, he uses funny stories toencourage the people to be hopeful and lessen the misery of the Jews.The humorous scenes in the novel play on people’s weakness andpresent it in a comic manner even in unfortunate circumstances suchas the Nazi-controlled Jews ghetto. Becker uses humor to promotehuman-centered and dignified depiction of the Jews living in Nazighetto (Becker 301). Hence, it restores a potential loss of dignityamong the ghetto dwellers by helping them bear the incomprehensible.Consequently, people use the humor to challenge the situations thatare beyond their control and make their lives more bearable.
Thehumor in the novel refreshes the Jewish and German literary cultureduring the postwar period. The humorous events in the book stimulatean ethnic subculture that was recuperating after the destruction ofthe Second World War (Meirich 25). Therefore, it symbolizes a modestdevelopment of the literary and cultural horizons of the twosubcultures during the postwar period. Then again, it dismantles theframework of power established in the ghetto (Becker 10). Despite thesocial responsibilities the Jewish men, women, and children hadbefore the World War II, they were all taken to ghetto and camps,stripped off their dignity, and treated in a cruel way (Reimer andReimer 99). However, the characters use humor to suspend thehierarchies in the ghetto by questioning the official world andestablish a new order even if it is only for a short period inbetween conversations.
Theauthor applies humor to create a narrative contrast between fear andcomic relief. For example, Jakob does not know what to expect when heis called into the German headquarters. Although it is not pastcurfew, Jakob is dependent on the German officer’s right ofscrutiny (Becker 7). Jakob enters the building, but he is afraid ofbeing caught by an unpleasant officer. He hides behind a door, buthis shirt is stuck. At this point, Becker uses humor pulls thereaders from a tragic moment of a man who is desperate to get hisjacket from the door using the thoughts of possible ways to escapethe situation. Jakob cannot leave the jacket because it is his onlycloth with a Jewish Star of David, but cannot pull himself off thedoor because the symbol would be torn (Becker 8). Unfortunately, anofficer finds Jakob and goes to the right office to enquire about hispunishment. Therefore, the imminent danger of Jakob’s situationfinds its comic relief when he finds the duty officer who wassupposed to punish him sleeping (Becker 9). In another scene, Mishaand his Rosa get married, but they have to share a room with anotherman. Rosa is reluctant to be intimate, which forces Misha to lie thathis roommate is deaf. His plan succeeds, and Rosa becomes comfortableto be intimate. Later at night when Rosa falls asleep, the roommatestarts talking in his sleep (Meirich 31). The situation shows Misha’sdesperation, but for the reader, it is a humorous situation.
Humorelevates the characters to rise above their current situation.Throughout the story, Becker makes the reader aware of the constanthunger among the Jews ghetto dwellers. For example, Jakob tradesthree cigarettes for one carrot. Later, the German officers stopproviding the little lunch the workers received (Becker 314). Thesituation is desperate for the ghetto workers who are dependent onthe German officers’ kindness to provide them food. However, thesarcastic remarks of the ghetto inmates offer a new view of asituation where the Jews ultimately win.
Therefore,the humorous aspect of the events takes away the horror of theexperiences in the ghetto and serves as a release of the intensephysical and emotional effects. The German camps and ghetto wereplaces of dismay where the Jews endured slave labor, humiliation,hunger, and even murder. The novel tries to capture the situation butprovides a humorous twist that spares the readers of all the horrorwithout belittling the situation (Becker 331). For example, in mostconversations, Jakob says the opposite of what he actually feltthus, it allows him to rise above the situation. Consequently, hismind becomes free of the underlying horror of inhumanity the Jewsendured. Furthermore, humor provided relief and a sense of freedomamong the Jews because the Germans strictly forbade it. Thus,disobeying those orders made the inmates feel as though they werefree with the hope of escaping the terrors of their daily lives(Reimer and Reimer 99-100).
Besides,humor exposes the weaknesses of those in power. The German officershave the authority over the Jews in the ghetto. However, the officersare ridiculed when their weaknesses are exposed, which reverses therole of power in the story. For example, when Jakob is in the onlylavatory in the area, a German officer desperately needs to use itbecause he has diarrhea (Becker 100). Jakob takes his takes to readthe news that he plans to use as tissue paper while the officer pacesimpatiently outside the occupied lavatory. Therefore, the situationstrengthens Jakob’s power and reverses the authority in the ghettoeven if it is only for a short time. Nonetheless, the use of humordoes not make light of the suffering and exceptional experience ofthe ghetto. On the contrary, Becker uses humor in contrast with thedepiction of hunger, displacement, and death enhances the emotionalrepresentations that are closer to the actual ghetto experience afterthe Second World War (Meirich 28).
Inconclusion, the humorous description of daily lives of the peoplecreates the likelihood of normality, which gives the Jews some senseof dignity to their lives. The author uses humor to portray theexperiences of Jewish people without eroding their culture andexperiences. The characters show the suffering endured by the Jewsunder the oppressive rule of the German officers. However, the Jewsuse humor to elevate from their current situation, which ischaracterized by hunger and despair. Therefore, it offers Jakob andhis friends a way to deal with the problems they encounter and havehope for a better future even when it seems like there is no hope.Then again, it provides a possibility for the ghetto inmates to havepower over the German officers. The officers are often caught inembarrassing, but funny situations that give control back to theJews. Humor functions as a contrast between fear of the Jews andcomic relief they encounter in a different situation. The humorousevents and experiences of the characters also revitalize theJewish-German literary subculture after the Second World War. Hence,the novel is an interesting and educative narrative of the Jewishlife and culture during the postwar period.
Becker,Jurek. Jacobthe Liar.New York: Arcade Pub, 1990. Print.
Meirich,Hanni. ALaughing Matter? The Role of Humor in Holocaust Narrative.2013. Web. 29 March 2017.
Reimer,Robert C, and Carol J. Reimer. HistoricalDictionary of Holocaust Cinema.Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2012. Print.