A Replacement Life

By Boris Fishman

Harper Collins, New York | 2014

Reviewed by Jan Alexander

boris fishman

The Writer as Thief

This is what Slava Gelman, the young psychological warrior of A Replacement Life is up against: “I was told they had seen a bottle of blood on the Jew’s table,” says the conniving mother of a slain boy, pointing at Yakov Bok, a Jew who has been living under false pretexts in Kiev circa 1911.

“The Jew killed my child....”

The mother and her lover killed the boy, actually, but the entire village is happy to send a Jew to the gallows. The villagers believe that Jews bake their matzos with the blood of Christian children.

The scene is not from Boris Fishman’s illuminating debut novel, but from Bernard Malamud’s 1966 novel, The Fixer.

Fishman has said that while writing the novel he read Malamud every day. And at the end of his novel he presents a note acknowledging all of the writers whose words or thoughts he borrowed.

“Life is sin and art is theft,” he writes

Most novelists call this kind of theft “inspiration,” but it’s a fitting tribute in a novel that is about borrowed stories —and ultimately, about how those borrowed stories give shape to Slava’s amorphous identity.

As a man of 25 in pre-recession New York, Slava lives with survivor guilt and identity crisis and all that comes with being part of a lucky generation that doesn’t know a history of oppression and slaughter first-hand. But like so many immigrant children who become writers—including Fishman himself and Gary Schteyngart, the best-known so far of the new-generation Russian Jewish writers stuck between a history of suffering and crazy-money globalization—Slava has to distance himself from his heritage before he can tap into it.

Fishman himself was born in Minsk, Belarus, in 1979 and came to the U.S. in 1988, when he was nine; to be specific, to the Russian Jewish community in Brooklyn.  He left the Soviet Union shortly before its dissolution, at a time when about 1,000 Soviet Jews were leaving each month, but the authorities still held tight controls over emigration.

The pre-hipster Brooklyn that became Fishman’s new home would have still held echoes of Malamud’s life two generations earlier. Malamud was born in 1914 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents who spoke Yiddish and ran a small grocery store in Brooklyn

The Fixer itself was a story Malamud borrowed from Mendel Beilis, a Jew who was arrested in Kiev in 1911 on a charge of ritual murder, then acquitted two years later. The trial made headlines around the world, and in 1925 Beilis, then living in America, self-published a memoir of his ordeal.   He had a son, David Beilis, who complained to Malamud that he had presented a distorted and unkind view of his father, and accused him of plagiarizing the memoir, a charge that came up again last year, 100 years after the trial, when Jay Beilis, a grandson, wrote in The Jewish Daily Forward: “The actual Mendel Beilis was a dignified, respectful, well-liked, fairly religious family man with a faithful wife and five children. Malamud’s Bok, though ultimately a heroic figure, is an angry, foul-mouthed, cuckolded, friendless, childless blasphemer.” But then, alienated heroes were Malamud’s stock in trade.

And therein lies a legacy that trails Slava, who like his creator was born in Minsk and left as a child. The fictional immigrant little memory of his birthplace except for “an unfocused dread of bodily harm due to he was a Jew and the scent of lilac trees that clotted the yard.” Even so, from the very beginning, when Slava’s landline rings at 5:00 on a Sunday morning in the summer of 2006, there is something in Fishman’s dexterous language that looks half old-world and half new.  “....in the cobalt square of the window, the sun was looking for a way up,” suggests the kind of claustrophobic view Jacob Bok had in a brief period when he was fortunate enough to have a window.  When Fishman describes “the great towers of the Upper East Side ready for gilding,” there is an echo, albeit unconscious to Slava, of unattainable façades.

Slava has never been in a synagogue.  Nor is he truly present in the writing world.  What he does understand is rebellion.  Jacob Bok, at the end of The Fixer thinks: “If the state acts in ways that are abhorrent to human nature, it's the lesser evil to destroy it. Death to the anti-Semites! Long live revolution! Long live liberty!"

Yet for Slava there is no abhorrent state; there is only a mecca in Manhattan that is hard to crack, as it is for all young aspirants from west of the Hudson River and east of the Atlantic. Slava, having grown up with tales of oppression, however, takes rejection rather politically and personally.

Slava lives in a doorman building on the Upper East Side, in a studio that even he knows is “miraculously affordable.” (The affordability is left unexplained.)  He has an entry level editorial job at a charmingly print-centric magazine called Century that sounds very much like the New Yorker in the days when it read like Eustace Tilley perpetually peering over his monocle.

Slava's main duty is to dig up bloopers and lapses in sophistication from newspapers across the heartland so that an editor in New York can come up with wryly bemused rejoinders

On one typical day in his life he finds a nugget from the New Orleans Times Picayune, writes his own quip making fun of proofreading capabilities down south, then tucks away his little gem, Soviet-dissident style. It’s his editor’s job to come up with the rejoinders.

In the past Slava has tried sending suggestions, and once his editor ran Slava’s rejoinder without so much as a thank you, “leaving Salva to feel like he had been slept with but not called the next day.”  Hello, junior-staffdom.  Slava, though, sees his self-sabotage as defying a certain kind of oppressor.

But immutable forces are about to drag him back to Brooklyn and dredge up memories of Belarus in a time before he was even born.  The phone call at 5:00 that morning is from his mother. “Your grandmother isn’t,” she says in Russian. In Russian, Slava knows, you don’t need the adjective “alive.”

Here is what Fishman has borrowed from reality: The German government has operated a monetary reparations program for Holocaust survivors called the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany since 1951. Between 2006 and 2011, however, the Claims Conference was subject to a number of investigations for high staff salaries and paying fraudulent claims in exchange for kickbacks.

But Fishman, like Malamud before him, knows that the power of a story lies less in the mere act of greed or fraud than in the way victimization might shape a person. Slava is about to attend his grandmother’s funeral, then face down his grandfather, Yevgeny Gelman, who has been a hustler all of his life. Now Grandfather wants to take advantage of an offer from the Claims Conference, which has promised payments to those who can prove they were in ghettoes, forced labor, concentration camps or any combination thereof between 1939 and 1945.

Slava’s grandmother, Sophia, would have qualified.  Grandfather, though, hustled his way out of World War II entirely; he hopped a train and made his way to Uzbekhistan. If he hadn’t escaped he probably would have been killed and a whole line of descendants never born. Slava has long wondered if his grandfather was a hero or a coward. That is the revelation that brings this novel to life: isn’t it the lesser evil to scheme against an abhorrent state? Is behaving with honor a luxury unavailable to the grandson of Yevgeny Gelman?

Slava knows one true story about the war, the only story his grandmother could bear to tell. It’s about how, as a young girl in bombed-out post-war Minsk, she went to a dance club one night.  Her parents were dead. She didn’t know how they’d been killed. To escape from a captain who was coming on too strong, she did something just as loathsome—she appealed to Yevgeny Gelman to pretend to be her boyfriend. He was a neighbor boy known as a hooligan. “He got what needed to be got, whether it was beets from old Berbershteyn’s garden or a set of silver spoons from God knows whom, and you could do yourself a favor by not worrying how.”

Later Sofia waited for Yevgeny while he served time for cutting up a Belarussian who made a comment about “those kikes” in the street. His talents for fighting and hustling kept them alive.

Slava writes one restitution letter for his grandfather, and that letter leads to a request from a neighbor for a similar appeal, then another neighbor and another.  In the process he learns a lot about the rules of storytelling. It helps that back in Manhattan, he has become romantically involved with a cubicle-mate, Arianna Bock, who is a fact-checker for Century.  She could be a descendant of Yakov Bok herself, but she grew up in middle-class America and sees a clear dividing line between truth and lies.

Slava learns that if your aim is a bigger truth than mere reality, however, don’t give facts that can be checked, such as exact addresses. Distract the reader, make him forget that there’s no verifiable detail. At the same time, he understands that details are what make a story work. He writes about young girls in the ghetto who had the job of sorting through the clothes of the murdered, and of how, “after a while, the Germans wised up and made people undress first. By the end of ’42 the clothes had no holes or blood. You could still smell the people in the fabric, though: sweat and hay and sour milk and something else that must have been fear.”

He tells of a girl witnessing a baby trying to drink milk from its mother’s breast but the mother was dead. About seeing the Belarusian police, who worked for the Germans, sit down for beer and drumsticks between executions, and about a girl keeping her mouth closed because she’d lost half her teeth and they shot you on sight if you weren’t healthy.

Eventually even a German from the Claims Conference comes along with his own revelations about what makes a story believable. “You must include one specific detail, like the color. Would you have believed my story about the tea if I had not said yellow shoes?” says the German.

Fishman is hard on his immigrant community, painting a picture of victims who don’t know any game except fighting and hustling to get by. In his dedication he writes: “.... to the walking wounded who survived the degradations of a life in the Soviet Union. For all their warts, they, too, are survivors.” What is a revelation to Slava is just how deep a chasm he inhabits between those who hustle and those who know how to work the system more subtly.

“There is a style. It’s not your style,” a colleague from the magazine who is always getting assignments tells him, and the innuendo is that it’s more than just a writing style.

Slava has a choice, sort of, between two women who act as stand-ins for his heritage and his aspirations. In Brooklyn there is Vera, who has “the eyes of a hunter for a husband in the Russian classifieds,” and when she kisses him her beige powder scatters finely between them. Vera has a scheme to layer upon the reparations scheme, and she could lead Slava that way for the rest of his life, gaming the money-making holes in any system.

Then there’s Arianna. One of these two women—need I say which one?—delivers an insightful retort about how lovers can disagree and enjoy it if the disagreements are like frosting; underneath you are the same. What doesn’t work is if you are different all the way through.

In measuring his hero’s reluctance to understand who he is,  however, Fishman has given us a unique new American voice.  It’s as if, in his spiked humor and flippant tragedy, this debut novelist is just begun to drill down into something one of the old men seeking reparations tells Slava of his prose: “‘It’s got that silence of ours. That terrible Russian silence that the Americans don’t understand. They are always making noise because they need to forget life is going to end. But we remember, and so we have silence, even when we’re shouting and laughing.’”

Here is a young writer who, no matter what he borrows in the future, is on his way to delivering much more about the power of that silence.

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