Book review – A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman

Book Review – A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman

The immigrant novel in the US has a long a proud history. Many of these novels were originally written by pre-war European immigrants battling to find purchase in the cacophony and promise of a burgeoning America. More recently the immigrant novel has been combustively re-invigorated by a Babel of new voices – Amy Tam, Gary Shteyngart, Jumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz, among others.

Into this august literary group steps Boris Fishman, with A Replacement Life. The protagonist, Slava Gellman, is stretched uncomfortably between two worlds, his unassimilated Russian-Jewish family in South Brooklyn, and his white-knuckled handhold as a junior writer on a celebrated magazine in Manhattan called Century. Gellman’s background story is quickly revealed –  he has been in the US since he was a child, his parents having slid semi-legally out of Russia as they released their hold on Jews, and allowed a period of relatively free emigration in the late 1970s and 1980s. The author was born in Belarus, and his life followed a similar trajectory,(he worked as a writer for Vanity Fair) – the odor of authenticity is strong, particular in the descriptions people, places and rituals of the Russian-Jewish enclaves of New York.

Into this milieu Fishman introduces a bursting and rich plot device. Slava, as the only English writer (and culturally competent American) in the family, writes a forged German holocaust reparations claim for his aging and pleading grandfather. The claims are reserved for those who had been in concentration camps or conscripted slave labour – his grandfather had comfortably sat out the war in Uzbehkistan. When Slava balks at the lie, his grandfather says – ‘Who do you think you are? Lenin’s Son? We all suffered in our own way.’ Slava is won over. He writes the claim. And then word gets around, and Slava suddenly finds himself writing scores of fraudulent claims for all the old and fading Russian Jews of South Brooklyn. This deception is the ethical core around which the book is built.

There are several deeply and sensitively explored sub-themes that are woven into this story. He has two woman in his life – a born-and-bred urbane Manhattanite and a unassimilated and curvaceous granddaughter of immigrants, and his fraught attraction to both. The backstory of the horrors visited upon his late grandmother during the liquidation of the Minsk ghetto, painted lurid by small hints and partial memories. His grandfather’s thuggishnes in Russia before the war. The competitiveness of the Manhattan magazine publishing world. America’s continuing allure to foreigners even as it staggers and stumbles (one of the immigrants marvels at his ability to buy a 32 inch TV on a doorman’s salary). And the immigrant’s jail – the freedom of America and their inability to grasp it, weighed down by histories that they cannot shed.

There were times when I was reading this book that I heard Saul Bellow echoing clamourously – long unbroken blocks of musing dialogue, knotted and gnarled ethical dilemmas without clear resolutions, characters bursting out of the page, unheroic, flawed, powerless and deceptively exceptional. One of the joys of this book was the rendering of English brokenly executed by fluent Russian speaking characters – you can hear the steppes in their cadences.

This is a book for a certain kind of reader. It is a deep dive in all respects – characters that you have never met, a plot that is unusual and profound, relationships which ring true even in their foreignness. It was slow seduction for me, I suspect it will linger long. 

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