A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman

Our member Elayne Klasson writes:

Fishman says, “Sometimes we struggle to remember that fiction is often nonfiction warped by artifice and nonfiction is unavoidably a reinvention of what really happened.” This was particularly tricky for Fishman, a young Russian émigré writer whose own family did not understand why he had to write a novel that reflected so poorly on them! 

Fishman was born in Minsk, Belarus, in the former Soviet Union in 1979. He grew up in South Brooklyn, where various communities from different parts of the Soviet Union live together, sometimes in the same buildings: Ukrainians, Belarusians, Moldovans, Tajiks, Georgians, Uzbeks. There are an astonishing number, 3 million!— of Russian-Americans now living in every state in the U.S. and, with a formidable number of them living in Brooklyn.

In a 2014 interview in The Forward, Fishman describes his literary hero as Bernard Malamud. Melamud wrote about honorable men who make one risky choice or break one rule, and this changes their life irrevocably. Fishman’s protagonist must make such a life-changing choice. Melamud’s voice is one of melancholy wryness..and this is the Russian Jewish voice: Fishman says it is the voice of love and loss—a voice he relates to. In the acknowledgements section of his book (p.318), he honors, “the walking  wounded, who survived the degradations of a life in the Soviet Union. For all their warts, they, too, are survivors.”

The story begins in 2006 with an early morning wake-up call telling Slava that his beloved Grandmother, “isn’t.”

Like many grandchildren who didn’t pay enough attention to the stories at the dinner table, or didn’t ask the right questions, Slava knows he has lost more than his grandmother. He has lost the Holocaust memories that died with her. He may live in Manhattan, on the stylish upper East side, but every time Slava returns to Brooklyn and his first-generation relatives, assimilation goes out the window. This conflict between his Russian self and his American self is central to the novel.

 The fictional Gelman family emigrated from the Soviet Union in the 1980s, as did the author’s family, coming from Belarus to Brooklyn via Italy. In the novel, only days before his grandmother’s death, the Gelman family received a letter about reparations from the German government. There is an expiration date on applying for these reparations as well as specific conditions for restitution: surviving a concentration camp, ghetto, or forced labor battalion.

Perhaps the letter came too late for Sofia, who was eligible—but not for Yevgeny, Slava’s larcenous and opportunist grandfather. And so, Slava, the writer  of the family, is drafted into writing counterfeit briefs…filing bogus restitution claims with the German government. Grandfather says, “ Maybe I didn’t suffer in the exact way I need to have suffered, but they made sure to kill all the people who did.”

 Slava agrees to write a bogus restitution letter for his grandfather, and soon he is writing letters for other elderly Soviet émigrés in the neighborhood. He researches and learns what his grandmother never told him of the Holocaust, using what he learns in these false restitution letters.

Slava, through Fishman, discusses big issues: The Holocaust, honesty, immigration, becoming an American, ethics, following one’s dream to be a writer. Should Slava be true to himself and recant the false restitution letters? Or, should he be true to the old people? Why shouldn’t these elderly survivers receive reparations—even if they didn’t suffer exactly in the way the German government defines? Despite Fishman’s consideration of these big topics, the story is told with ironic humor—written in English, but in a very Russian voice.

“She’s a vulgarian,” Slava says to his grandfather of Vera Rudinsky. “No, she’s not Bulgarian,” his grandfather replies. “She’s one of us.”