The Assistant is Bernard Malamud’s 1957 novel about an ageing Jewish shopkeeper who runs a struggling grocery business in New York, and the young man who becomes his assistant.
Although shopkeeper Morris Bober is an immigrant, with all the suggestion of rootlessness that his situation involves, he has spent decades in the same shop going through the same routine. He is honest and steady by nature, but his business has suffered in not changing or adapting. By contrast, Frank Alpine, a second generation Italian American, lost his parents early, and before becoming an assistant to Bober, has never remained anywhere for longer than six months, suffering a loss of educational and advancement opportunities in the process.
This conflict between the benefits and problems of moving and staying, drives the story. The opposite sides of the issue become so tangled, that it is difficult to tell them apart. For example, Bober is an immigrant, but his experience of having to flee Russia, combined with a cautious personality, has moulded a profound stick-in-the-mud. He creates an unchanging world in his shop, into which Frank Alpine becomes the immigrant, even though Frank was born in America. This isn’t a case of them and us, when the immigrant is very much settled in outlook, and the person born in the country, because of his individual circumstances, is in the position of a migrant. And both Morris and Frank are vulnerable, Morris because his caution threatens his business, and Frank because his rootless wandering leaves him isolated. This confusion also applies to cultural identity, which is important to Bober and even more so to his wife, but which seems to dissolve into nothing if the characters discuss it too closely.
I think the quality of The Assistant shows in the way you can read a book published in 1957, and then find yourself thinking of immigration in the twenty first century. There’s an ongoing debate in the book about whether Frank’s arrival reinvigorates the shop, compared to other factors, like the changing level of local grocery competition. The ins and outs of this reminded me of an article I read recently by an LSE economist, assessing whether immigration offers economic benefits. With some provisos, the article suggested that yes, immigration does bring economic benefits, just as Frank’s role in the survival of Bober’s grocery shop seems undeniable in the end. This puts the Bobers in the position of trying to get over their innate distrust of a stranger, who becomes important to their livelihood. In the UK, there has been debate about ‘secure borders’ for years. Some of the most hardline Conservative politicians in the UK, with an extreme fixation on borders, themselves have an immigrant background. Their efforts at promoting national isolation and border control are highly controversial, not least in the sense that such measures – according to say, the LSE, the UK Office of Budget Responsibility, the Centre of Inclusive Trade Policy at the University of Sussex, Small Business Britain, and surveys conducted by the British Chamber of Commerce – hurt the economic prospects of the UK grocery shop.
I enjoyed The Assistant. It provides a view into a highly specific community and a reflection on general human dilemmas, which certainly remain relevant. There is quite a lot of skipping about between points of view, but this doesn’t generally make the straight forward writing difficult to read. In fact moving about between different heads is a good way to see how contrasting outlooks, can end up finding unlikely common ground.