They tell writers that for best results “write what you know”, and there couldn’t be a much better result than when Boris Fishman set out to write his first novel by blending his immense knowledge of Russian history with his own life’s experience.
Fishman’s novel A Replacement Life, which debuts tomorrow, features as its main character Slava Gelman, who emigrated with his parents and grandparents from Russia to Brooklyn, New York at the age of seven. (Fishman did the same at the age of nine). After college, Slava ends up working for a prestigious magazine in Manhattan. (After college Fishman worked at the New Yorker magazine for three years.) And when Fishman describes Slava’s first day in an American school, the reader can simply feel without a doubt that he’s been there and done that.
Slava walked into his first American classroom with an old man’s part in his hair, a striped velour sweater…thirty pairs of American eyes assessed this new flotsam and resumed spitballs and notes. Slava could not distract himself from himself as easily.
However there is also much dissimilarity between Boris Fishman and Slava Gelman. Unlike Fishman, transplant Slava feels he cannot fully assimilate—not become a “real” American nor a successful writer— until he separates quite physically and emotionally from his family. He feels polluted by Brooklyn and the immigrants there who refuse to take any interest in American culture. After two years of trying to get his writing published, he finally comes to the conclusion that he needs to get everything Brooklyn represents out of his system, so he cuts his family off and escapes.
Our great realizations are slow dishes, but once they're ready they announce themselves as suddenly as an oven timer.
A year later, Slava’s mother calls to tell him, “Your grandmother isn’t.”
Isn’t. Verbiage was missing. In Russian, you didn’t need the adjective to complete the sentence, but in English you did. In English, she could still be alive.
At first Slava doesn’t understand, thinking that even though his beloved grandmother had been ill for years, nothing would happen to her while he was gone “until he authorized new developments.” But gone she is, and when Slava returns to Brooklyn to attend her funeral services, his grandfather pulls him aside and shows him a letter which had just arrived in the mail.
The German government offers restitution to Holocaust survivors. Since little or no documentation exists for those who were held in concentration camps or ghettos, most of the claims are based on letters describing personal experiences during the war. Slava’s grandfather did not qualify for restitution but his grandmother did. But now Grandmother “isn’t”, so her widower, who never really considered Slava’s chosen profession to be quite valid (“It’s not too late to become a businessman.”) asks Slava to forge a letter on his behalf instead, saying “You’re a writer, aren’t you?” To which Slava replies, “NOW I’m a writer.”
Slava initially refuses to commit the forgery. And he really doesn’t know much about his grandmother’s war experiences anyway as she’d never wanted to talk about the horrors she’d seen. When he’d once made up a ruse of an assignment in high school to get her to talk it, “her tongue moved but no words emerged” and he couldn’t bring himself to force her. Instead he settled on the tale of how his grandparents met and fell in love, a story he wrote in a notebook and which became the only real story of his grandmother’s youth that he had.
He traced and retraced its slender collection of details, his pocket notebook as overlarge for the few facts it contained as a widower’s bed for it revised list of occupants.
But as he further ponders the idea, Slava begins to weave stories for himself about what his grandmother’s experiences might have been like. In doing so, he brings the woman who helped raised him and to whom he was devoted back to life, at least in his own mind. Ultimately he decides to do what his grandfather asks, his desire to be loved and needed for his writing overpowering his desire to be more American than Russian.
However, Slava swears his grandfather to secrecy. His grandfather retorts “who would I tell?” But tell he does. Slava’s grandfather is a wheeler-dealer from way back, and he cannot resist farming Slava out to friends who need help writing their own letters to apply for funds. Slava becomes the forger of South Brooklyn, setting into motion a chain of events leading to a hot pursuit by an investigator.
Although Fishman never forged any documents, the inspiration for the storyline came from his own life as well. His grandmother was a Holocaust survivor and became eligible for reparation in the 1990s (although payments began in the 1950s, Soviet Union survivors were ineligible for years because the feeling was the government would usurp any monies given). Although still quite young, he was given the papers to complete for her because he spoke the best English. It occurred to Fishman at that time that this was a system which could easily be swindled. In his home country, people had to finagle just to survive and learned not to trust an untrustworthy government. Fishman says he knew someone at some point would figure this out and “have a field day”. And someone did. In 2010, this actually happened and the FBI exposed the fraud. But by then Fishman had already written the first draft of his novel.
There are many dichotomies to be found in this delightful book. “Good” versus “bad”, “old” versus “new”. Slava even has two romantic interests: Vera, whom he knew from the old country, and Adrianna, who works one cubicle over from him at the fictional “Century” magazine.
And though the subject matter is largely dark, when you least expect it there is also humor which comes up and bites you in a most pleasant way. One would not expect to laugh until tears ran when reading a book which at its core is about surviving the Holocaust, but I defy anyone to read Fishman’s description of Slava trying to imitate his supervisor’s way of dressing without doing exactly that.
If you want an excellent read this summer, look no further.
For an intimate profile of Boris Fishman, click here.
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