Bharati Mukherjee is known for her compelling stories about the experience of recent immigrants to the United States from the Third World. Although “The Middleman” takes place not in the United States but in an unnamed Central American country, it features the same theme. Alfie Judah is a naturalized American citizen who found his way to the United States via Baghdad and Bombay. He has learned many American ways, although he remains an outsider wherever he goes. In fact, the very term “middleman” is a metaphor of the immigrant experience, suggesting someone who is caught between two cultures, a full member of neither. Alfie, despite the American-style informality of the shortened version of his first name by which he introduces himself, is an outsider several times over. First, he is a Jew, and if there are any people in the world who have become familiar, over the course of many centuries, with what it means to be outsiders, it is the Jews. Alfie grew up as a Jew in Baghdad, an Arab city dominated by Muslims. He refers to the different, “lenient” nature of his upbringing in Baghdad when he recalls how he was taken as a child to “see something special from the old Iraqi culture,” the stoning to death of a woman for adultery. As a member of a minority group, Alfie was clearly set apart from the dominant culture of his society.
Then when Alfie immigrated to the United States, he became a double outsider, so to speak. As a dark-skinned Iraqi Jew, he would have been regarded by many as a foreigner, and possibly a foreigner not to be trusted. Of course, given Alfie’s chosen method of making money in his newly adopted homeland—he got involved in some kind of financial scam which landed him in trouble with the authorities—this mistrust might have been justified. But it is not quite as simple as that.
An immigrant such as Alfie cannot come to the United States and straightaway become president of the local bank, join the country club, and volunteer at Little League. Yes, Alfie is the kind of man who makes no distinction between a moral and an immoral way to live, but in his defense, the path to success in the United States did not lie as wide open to him as it would have done to his WASP neighbors. (WASP is an acronym for White AngloSaxon Protestant and refers to the American elite who occupy the vast majority of positions of power in the country.) Mukherjee herself came to the defense of Alfie, her character, in an interview she gave to Alison B. Carb in Massachusetts Review “He [Alfie] attracted me because he was a cynical person and a hustler, as many immigrant survivors have to be.” Her comment suggests that it is too easy to make moral judgments about Alfie and the way he chooses to survive in an alien environment. As an immigrant herself, Mukherjee has the ability to see things from the immigrant’s point of view. Indeed, she once commented, in an interview with Beverley Byers-Pevitts, that “The Middleman” was the most “autobiographical” of her stories.
She explained that the origin of the story lay in a trip she made to Costa Rica, where she was “stuck . . . among rather complicated, difficult people.” She tried writing the story with a Bengali woman in it but realized that this was implausible. Switching from third-person to first-person point of view, she discovered the character of Alfie, who fitted the story perfectly. With that in mind, it is easy to see some common ground between Mukherjee and her character Alfie in the sense that they both gave up a rich cultural heritage in order to come to the new world. Mukherjee was raised in a Hindu Bengali Brahmin family. She wrote in “Two Ways to Belong in America” of “surrendering those thousands of years of ‘pure culture,’” to become an “immigrant nobody.” So it is with Alfie Judah, as he recalls the “once-illustrious” Judahs whose family heritage goes back to places such as Smyrna, in Turkey, where there has been a large Jewish population since the seventeenth century, and Aleppo, an ancient city in northern Syria which traditionally had a large Jewish population, one which shrank drastically during the mid-twentieth century. In those two allusions to cities known for their Jewish communities, Mukherjee creates a sense of a rich cultural identity extending back hundreds of years or more, which has been lost by Alfie Judah as the price he pays for his decision to come to the United States.
(Although, it must be said, Alfie shows no regret at all about this. He has learned to adapt—and he did manage to land in the immigrant-rich city of Flushing, in the borough of Queens, New York City, which in the 1980s had a large Asian-American population.) When from a legal point of view, life gets too hot for Alfie in Queens and he ends up in a strifetorn Central American country, he becomes even more of an outsider. Technically, he is an American citizen, but he is not American in the way that Clovis T. Ransome and Bud Wilkins, the two white Texans, are American. Although he has learned some “New World skill[s]” such as how to open a beer bottle by hitting the cap against a metal edge, he cannot share the easy camaraderie of Clovis and Bud—before the one betrays the other, that is. Alfie is forever outside their world. When he tries to explain Ransome’s fanatical devotion to the Atlanta Braves baseball team, for example, Alfie says, “There are aspects of American life that I came too late for and will never understand.” This is the puzzled statement of the immigrant everywhere.
There are some things about every society that a person cannot understand unless he or she has been born and raised in it. Quasi-tribal allegiances to particular sports teams that go back generations and are rooted in local pride and sense of place are among the most noticeable examples. The immigrant may try hard to understand; he may learn all the rules of, say, baseball, and all the players’ names and all the baseball statistics, but compared to the lifelong fan, his understanding will always be superficial, lacking in real emotional depth. But Alfie Judah is no more at home with the indigenous population of this unnamed country Alfie, therefore, wins a kind of grudging tolerance born of indifference. He may be a middleman, but in this society, he is a kind of nowhere man, his origins, nationality, and allegiances unknown.” than he is with the Americans. The Indians regard him with puzzlement. Because of his dark skin, he is spared the hostility extended to white Americans, but the locals cannot place him. When Maria introduces him to Andreas, the guerrilla leader, Andreas looks him over and says, “Yudah?” and frowns. Maria just shrugs, and Alfie is more or less left alone. When the guerrillas come looking for Ransome in order to kill him, Maria has to explain the presence of Alfie to one of them. Alfie hears her say, “Jew” and “Israel,” which apparently is enough to make the guerrilla lose interest, since his target is the gringo , the American. Alfie, therefore, wins a kind of grudging tolerance born of indifference. He may be a middleman, but in this society, he is a kind of nowhere man, his origins, nationality, and allegiances unknown. Alfie, a born survivor if ever there was one, is used to this outsider status, and it does not disturb him. To some, he says, he is an Arab, to others an Indian. (Of course, he is neither.) For his part, he is content just to observe this new country from the outside and pick up whatever knowledge he needs that will serve his purposes. A cunning man, he knows more than he lets on, as when he understands some of the Spanish spoken around him but pretends he does not.
Denied the social connections provided by a shared culture, Alfie appears to seek only one connection to compensate for the lack, and that is the temporary, emotionally meaningless coupling provided by a woman’s body in the heat of desire. The language of lust transcends all differences, if only for a short while. The fact that Alfie, himself a married man, has just seduced another man’s wife, in the man’s own home, does not trouble his conscience. He lives without morality or guilt, on the margins of society, picking up whatever scraps happen to fall his way.
Bryan Aubrey, Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Bharati Mukherjee, Published by Gale Group, 2006