“A Replacement Life” by Boris Fishman
Micah Reader in May 2016 by Brenda Levenson
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A confluence of two highly different cultures is the theme of Fishman’s novel into which he interweaves the concepts of suffering, empathy and justice. As a child Slava Gelman, the main character of A Replacement Life, immigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union with his family. Trained as a journalist he is employed as a researcher for “Century,” a well-known magazine, while dreaming of becoming one of its writers, but the stories he submits to his boss are rejected. Are they bad, or is it that they are too Russian? Could it be that Slava is imbued with the literature of the giant Russian authors of the 19th and 20th century, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Pasternak and others.
Slava desperately wants to become an American. As a first step he leaves Brooklyn where the Russian colony has erected an invisible wall between it and America. Now living in Manhattan, he rarely sees his family. His grandfather is a main figure throughout the novel. His grandmother, of whom he knows little save for the fact that she was “fierce, strong and tough,” has just died, the shiva period sounding more like a food festival than a religious ritual.
If at “Century” no one appreciates the stories Slava submits, to his grandfather he is a writer! The opportunity to put his grandson’s talents to good use emerges when the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany offers to compensate people who are either concentration camp survivors, or have suffered in other ways as a result of World War II. To qualify, one must send a letter detailing their experiences. At first Slava declines writing such letters, “you are not acquainted with the law here, but they [the Americans] take this seriously,” he tells his grandfather. The conversation between the two men provides humorous lines that are particularly relevant in today’s political scene in the U.S. Finally worn out by the grandfather’s arguments, Slava consents to do as asked. The document he produces is mostly truthful. He is soon contacted by what seems to be the entire Russian community in Brooklyn to take advantage of his free services. He becomes trapped in a fraudulent undertaking, inventing at will, and is “made to feel responsible [for his clients] because he speaks English,” noted our readers.
Navigating between the American culture, which Slava craves to be a part, and the Russian culture that engulfs him, becomes increasingly difficult. He rejects the advances of his childhood friend Vera whose Russian is beautiful and poetic, while her English is functional. Instead, he has an affair with Arianna, the very American Jewish woman employed at “Century” as a fact checker, an ironic Gogolian touch.
Eventually Slava’s forgery is caught. His meeting with Otto, the German employee of the Claims Conference, reveals Slava’s empathy for those for whom he has written the letters. He understands what they have gone through whether or not they survived concentration camp. They endured exile from their birth country, adjustment to a foreign culture and its many puzzling aspects, and the humiliation of having to work at jobs below their professional ability, while suffering as they do from the paralytic effect of linguistic difficulties.
What is the meaning of the novel’s title, our readers questioned? A Replacement Life…. But whose life? Slava’s reincarnation as an American, said some. Knowing little about his grandmother’s life, “he has to invent it” offered another. We may not have solved the issue, but it concluded our discussion on an interesting note.
Born in Belarus, once a part of Russia, Boris Fishman was nine years old when he and his family immigrated to the United States. Published in 2014, A Replacement Life is his first novel.