Slava Gelman had the kind of grandmother who would have walked under a tank for him.
Boris Fishman’s impressive debut novel, “A Replacement Life,” (Harper) opens on an early summer morning in 2006 when Slava picks up the phone to learn from his mother that his beloved grandmother Sofia “isn’t.” In Russian, as the narrator explains, “you didn’t need the adjective to complete the sentence, but in English you did.”
The novel is bracketed with loss, beginning with Sofia’s death after a long illness, and ending three months later when Slava visits her grave. In between, the scenes are alive with humor, and crowded with Russian immigrants and their families extending across generations, as Fishman unfolds the story of how Slava gets involved in forging Holocaust-restitution documents for these elderly Russian Jews. In pitch-perfect sentences full of word play, Fishman raises questions about family honor and empathy, as well as legal and moral issues.
The 25-year-old Slava moved out of Brooklyn into Manhattan. A junior staffer for the legendary Century magazine, Slava is pushed into fabricating claims by his grandfather Yevgeny. For the elder Gelman, who learned to exploit the system in order to survive in the Soviet Union, truth is highly overrated. When a letter arrives for Slava’s grandmother soon after her death inviting her to apply for restitution — she is eligible as a survivor of the Minsk ghetto — Yevgeny wants to substitute his own claim.
After Slava tries to explain the approved categories and why his experience doesn’t fit, Yevgeny replies, “What are you, Lenin’s grandson? 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. We had our whole world taken out from under us.”
So Slava skillfully twists her story into his. The process of inventing his grandmother’s history in its details keeps her alive for him, and for that he is grateful. In one story, he has her savoring dark bread with sunflower oil.
In Brooklyn, the memorable Yevgeny keeps up an underground economy of his own making, hustling salmon and flounder from truckers and selling at a discount to a neighbor, procuring prescription medicine (his own oversupply) for another neighbor in exchange for cognac, and giving haircuts to the Mexicans in the illegal basement apartments. Although Yevgeny is told not to breathe a word about the application, Slava begins getting calls from other elderly Russians asking for help with their stories.
“Slava wasn’t a judge: He was a middleman, a loan shark, an alchemist — he turned lives into facts, words in to money, silence into knowledge at last, “ Fishman writes.
In a recent interview, Fishman explains that the novel was inspired by his own experience in preparing his grandmother’s application for restitution. Born in Belarus, Fishman moved to the United States — first to Brooklyn and then New Jersey — when he was nine. As the best English speaker in his immediate family (his parents and maternal grandparents), he was the administrator of official paperwork. As the application asked for little documentation, he realized that it was more about telling a persuasive story than historical record.
“I bet someone was going to have a field day with these applications and start making up well-told stories,” he says. “That felt provocative in the way you want fiction to be — you want it to explore touchy questions like whether there are any Jews who would abuse memory of the Holocaust for profit.” First he wrote a short story on the subject, and then wanted to write a novel.
“I ran with it, and it ran with me,” Fishman says.
And while writing, his hunch proved true. In 2010, more than a dozen employees of German restitution funds — all Russian speakers — were indicted for fraud and embezzlement of more than $50 million by using invented tales of suffering.
Along with Slava’s grandmother and mother, who “held the world record for fastest trip from tender to brutal,” Fishman writes of two women in Slava’s romantic life, the American Arianna, the fact-checker in the cubicle next to his at work, and the Russian Vera, the daughter of family friends with whom he spent hours as a child, as all of them waited to leave Rome for America.
Fishman captures New York as a city of immigrants, in particular South Brooklyn, “a foreign city, if you were coming from Manhattan.” Yevgeny’s neighbors are Russians, Belarussians, Ukrainians, Moldovans, Georgians, Uzbeks and Mexicans. In some corners of the neighborhood, the “average time since arrival was under twelve months. These American toddlers were only beginning to crawl. Some, however, has already found the big thumb of American largesse.”
He also portrays the immigrants’ emotional lives. There are many widowers like Yevgeny — the women seemed to die first. As Fishman writes, “The homes of Soviet Brooklyn were filled with men who had been left to themselves by the last people to know how much looking after they needed. These men were terrified of being alone. An old Russian friend is “stooped as a branch being reclaimed by the ground.” The image of two elderly men, shuffling along the sidewalk as they take their evening walk dressed in their house slippers, supporting each other’s arm, stays with the reader.
When asked about his powers of description, Fishman admits, “I observe everyone. Too much so.” He also attributes his highly attuned observation skills to being Jewish in the Soviet Union, where one had to be vigilant always, and to being an immigrant. Cast in the role of outsider, he honed his abilities as a storyteller.
“As immigrants, all we’ve got is stories. We gave up the soil,” he adds.
His humor is dark, but not mean-spirited. He identifies with one of his favorite writers, Bernard Malamud.
“Malamud is melancholy. Ultimately, he has a grim view of the world as a place of suffering, but with blasts of magic and light. That’s how I see the world. It’s a very old-world view. You do your best, but things don’t often go your way. I connect to that sensibility,” he says. “And his prose is so whittled, like a rock. There’s not one extra word. He achieves a quality of myth, it’s so elemental. I worship him. Even his failures.”
As if to keep the reader still wondering about the nature of borrowed truths, Fishman includes an author’s note at the back of the book, attributing certain phrases to his own previous work and to other writers including Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” and Malamud’s “The Fixer.” (“The tea was bitter and he blamed existence” is a variation on Malamud.)
Fishman has several projects in the works, among them a new novel about a New Jersey couple that adopts a boy from Montana who turns out to be wild, “Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo,” and a memoir about his father and grandfather. He’s also thinking about a cookbook of Ukrainian delicacies like the spread prepared by Yevgeny’s home aide Berta in the novel that is piled onto plates rimmed in gold filigree; it includes chicken steaks in egg batter, herring under potatoes, salmon soup, marinated peppers with buckwheat honey, sour cabbage with beef and pickled cabbage.
He says that when he’s blessed to have children, he wants them to know Russian language and literature, his family’s history (he tricked his own grandmother into telling him what happened to her during the war, by saying that he needed the information for a school project — he knew she wouldn’t hold back to help him get a better grade), as well as Jewish history and culture. He describes himself as “not observant and a very proud Jew culturally.”
As his book tour shapes up around the country this fall, Fishman is hoping for the opportunity to speak in Jewish venues. “I really want to start the conversation about the relationship of American Jews to Russian Jews. It feels overdue. There’s a lot of expectation and hope, but a real divide.”
He explains that for American Jews, religion is a lot more central to their identity and understanding, and for Russian Jews, it’s World War II and being second-class citizens. “American Jews talk about the holidays. Russian Jews talk about the war.”