Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Trading places: Dark humour drives tale of Russian Jews in Brooklyn

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Slava Gelman, the comically conflicted protagonist of this ambitious debut novel by Boris Fishman, has a choice to make.

A young man with a Manhattan apartment and an entry-level job at Century magazine, a fictionalized bastion of East Coast culture, Slava aspires to be a "real" American and writer. To accomplish that, he decides to escape (at least temporarily) the overpowering, guilt-inducing embrace of his immigrant family.

Slava's parents and maternal grandparents left Minsk in the 1970s, part of an exodus of Russian Jews. For them, Manhattan remains "a glimmering headache." They're more comfortable in "the swamp broth" of their South Brooklyn neighbourhood. While they often think that it would be better that their grandchildren's grandchildren "won't even know where Minsk is, good riddance," they remain stuck in a Soviet-era economy of favours and dodgy deals and "money passed under a table."

The Belarus-born, New York-based Fishman starts off with a familiar trope of immigrant literature. But what seems to be Slava's rather callow dilemma is immediately complicated by the death of his beloved grandmother, Sofia, and an astounding request from his grandfather, Zhenya.

Sofia, a survivor of the Minsk ghetto, was in the Holocaust, though even as Slava thinks about that he wonders about the preposition. "At the Holocaust? Of it, with it, from it, until it?" English comes up short, somehow.

Sofia dies before she can apply for restitution through a program instituted by the German government. Zhenya, a tireless schemer with decades of gaming the Soviet system behind him, wants to swap her life for his and make a claim.

"Maybe I didn't suffer in the exact way I need to have suffered," Zhenya argues. "But they made sure to kill all the people who did."

Slava's literary ambitions are thus sidetracked into forging Holocaust narratives, first for his grandfather and then for his grandfather's neighbours. The documents are anchored in the real horrors of his grandmother's experience -- he is trying to write his way back to her -- but given the structure and heft of storytelling.

Meanwhile, Slava is torn between two women. His grandfather is trying to fix him up with Vera, a tough girl from the old neighbourhood who shares Slava's history and would "stand behind you like a tank," boasts Vera's own grandfather. Slava is also drawn to Arianna, an upper-middle-class girl who embodies what Slava imagines as his new American life. If only he weren't moonlighting as a forger: Arianna's position as Century's fact-checker holds her to an inconveniently stringent definition of truth.

All these choices come to a head when Slava is visited by a comically jovial German investigator ("Oh my goodness, what laughter") who is searching for false restitution claims.

Fishman is tackling big, serious themes -- the limits of family loyalty, the line between fact and fiction, the difficulty of representing the seemingly unrepresentable suffering of the Holocaust. This moral exploration is grounded in dark humour, a common feature in the writing of Jewish emigres from former Soviet states, a talented gang that includes David Bezmozgis, Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar.

Fishman makes some rookie mistakes. A Replacement Life suffers from bumpy tonal shifts and overly obvious story mechanics, and its ambitious premise is never fully realized. But the writing is always vivid, warm and richly comic.

At one point, an elderly Russian Jew gives Slava some tips on writing (dialogue from these kvetching characters being one of the chief delights in this frequently very funny book).

"Nice sentences is like a beautiful woman who doesn't know how to cook," the old man advises.

Fishman has no problem with beauty. He just needs to brush up on a few cooking basics.


Free Press columnist Alison Gillmor tries to writes nice sentences and cook.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2014 G6

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Updated on Saturday, June 21, 2014 at 8:15 AM CDT: Formatting.

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