Jakobowicz’s taut, smart debut novel is informed by a key piece of historical trivia: At some point in the regal and legal tangle of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire, the emperor acquired baroque and fanciful titles such as “Emperor of Mexico” and “King of Jerusalem.” Furthermore, at times in modern-day Israel’s troubled history, radical sects have petitioned the United Nations to find a living Habsburg descendant who can come and rule them as king—an alternative they find preferable to sharing their land with Palestinians. Such abstruse considerations seem far removed from the world of U.N. translator Joshua Haburghe, who, in June 1977, is busy pursuing a carefree life of casual gay hookups in various places in greater New York, including, in the book’s elegantly written opening scene, a nude beach: “Moist sand underfoot and the feel of saltwater streaming between the toes: such simple summer pleasures aren’t spoiled by knowing that a crowded city waits just around the shoreline’s bend.” His side job writing occasional program notes for ballet productions brings him into contact with choreographer Heinz Burckhardt, a stiffly charismatic anti-Semite who wastes no time taking Joshua to bed. When Heinz gives vent to his bigotry and tells Joshua he wants no contact with Jews, Joshua shoots back, “You’ve just had supper, sex, and an argument with a Jew.” Through Heinz, Joshua comes in contact with a whole demimonde of disgruntled royalty in exile and eventually realizes his own hereditary destiny as the king of Jerusalem, descended from countless generations of Habsburgs. Jakobowicz skillfully handles the elaborate hypothetical tale that unfolds. He uses the more exaggerated elements of his plot as opportunities to offer commentary on the current state of Israeli-Palestinian politics, some of which will no doubt rile some of his politically minded readers. The prose throughout is straightforward and graceful (at one point, he describes “the tardy and wistful illumination of an evening in early summer”), and the characters are memorably drawn, even though many of them, like Heinz, exist mainly to deliver plot exposition. In this, readers are lucky, however, as Jakobowicz’s plot is fascinating.
A charged political tale infused with just the right amount of humanity.