A Stranger in Belarus, a Foreigner in New York

In his debut novel, the Minsk-born Boris Fishman, much in the spirit of Gary Shteyngart, casts a sardonic light on the trials faced by those who relocate.

Bloomberg News

“A Replacement Life,” by Boris Fishman, Harper, 336 pages, $26

Slava Gelman’s greatest misfortune, one might surmise, was to have been born in the wrong place and at the wrong time. His family migrated from Minsk, in Soviet Belarus, to the United States when he was a child; old enough to remember the old country, he was yet young enough – fool enough, perhaps – to believe he could escape its baleful influence on his life.

Fat chance. Like it or not, he was trapped between two worlds. He could only envy the effortless ease with which others surrendered themselves to New York. As for Minsk, unlike his parents and grandparents, he had no sentimental connection, other than an “unfocused fear of bodily harm,” because he was a Jew. That and his memory of the scent of the lilac trees that filled the yard.

“A Replacement Life,” the debut novel by Boris Fishman – born in Minsk in 1979, emigrated to the United States in 1988 – is an unusual book. Meditations on migration and the curious half-life that ensues are thick on the ground, and of variable quality. (There is, of course, an established school of Soviet Jewish American migrant fiction, whose faculty include Lara Vapnyar, David Bezmozgis and, most notably, Gary Shteyngart.) Most try to shine an honest – if not always fulsomely positive – light on the tribulations of relocation. But “A Replacement Life” stands out, not least for its exceptional candor, and the machinations that shape the plot. Of course, it would be pretty hard to cast sympathetic light on an attempt to defraud the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

It is worth keeping in mind that there is a real-life counterpart to this, dating back a couple of years, when Russian-speaking Jewish migrants employed by the Conference conspired to siphon off $42 million of funds intended for distribution to Holocaust survivors.

But let’s go back to Slava. When we first meet Fishman’s (sort-of) anti-hero, he is perched precariously between two incompatible worlds. He fancies himself as a writer, an erudite man of letters; but he is stuck in an anonymous junior position at Century, an upmarket literary periodical. (Any resemblance to The New Yorker, where Fishman himself once worked as a fact checker one assumes, is purely un-coincidental.)

Slava holds the journal and its supercilious values in the highest regard; unsurprisingly, his desire for total assimilation into America sublimates into a quest – on the whole, quixotic – to score a coveted writing commission for the magazine. The problem is that Slava can’t quite manage to crack the code that will permit him to believe that he belongs.

It’s a question of his antecedents, he thinks, rooted in the working-class Soviet emigre community of south Brooklyn. He has to do everything he can do to make it seem that he belongs to the real America, not its ugly stepbrother immigrant counterpart. Slava can run from Russian-language coarseness and blue-collar chicanery if he chooses; he’ll never manage to hide from it though, especially if it comes chasing after him.

Particularly unsympathetic is grandfather Yevgeny, hard as nails and particularly attuned to the opportunities available to sharp-elbowed men on the make. He is not impressed by Slava’s attempts to craft himself as a man of letters. Men should live by their wits and not their words, whether in America or elsewhere. “This country does not invent things?” Yevgeny demands of Slava. “Bush did not invent a reason to cut off Saddam’s balls? When the stocks fall down, it’s not because someone invented the numbers?”

There are many routes to achieving the immigrant’s American Dream, it seems. After Yevgeny’s wife – Slava’s grandmother – dies, Slava is half-shamed, half-bullied into putting his writing skills to what Yevgeny determines is a more practical goal. According to the Claims Conference, Yevgeny didn’t “suffer the right way” to qualify for restitution paid to survivors of the Holocaust. So why not spin a story that will fit the bill?

Facts are curious things, much more arbitrary than we readily acknowledge. Fishman works this ambiguity astutely in setting the scene for “A Replacement Life.” Even those of us – most of us, I assume – who would shudder at the notion of defrauding the Claims Conference would admit that the definition of “victim” can seem, at best, somewhat rigid. Restitution goes only to those who were “incarcerated in concentration camps, ghettos or forced labor battalions.”

That’s not Yevgeny, whose unerring sense of self-preservation saved him from the worst of the war. But not from the banality of everyday anti-Semitism afterward. Facts are just a convenient subset of the fiction genre, and Yevgeny has convinced himself that he is as deserving as the next victim.

Slava the writer is going to put his skills to good use for a change; Yevgeny tasks him with crafting a convincing narrative to submit to the Claims Conference.

Artificial bifurcations

“A Replacement Life” is an ambitious, insistently clever book. A recurring refrain is the artificial bifurcations that distort our engagement with everyday life. There’s the American/not-American dichotomy (also, in its own way, a hierarchy); there’s the vexed issue of who is called, or gets to be called, a Holocaust survivor. Fishman works this theme further into Slava’s life. Given his gaucheness, he improbably tumbles into a relationship with Arianna, an elegant and sophisticated fact-checker at Century. Arianna is Jewish, too, but of much older immigrant stock; Slava can only but envy her comfortable assimilation into her milieu.

Then there’s Vera, the daughter of pre-migration family friends but still resolutely non-American, who turns up unexpectedly at Slava’s grandmother’s shivah (seven-day period of mourning). When the two were children, the joke was that they were the perfect couple-in-the-making. Two decades on, it seems that Vera still thinks this to be true. The two women are as alike as chalk and cheese: Arianna might be the entree into a true American life, Vera represents the loathed certainties – but, for all that, they are still certainties – of the past Slava would rather leave behind. Betwixt the various complications besieging his life, Slava is indeed caught between two very different worlds.

Ambition always comes with the risk of over-reach, though. The problem with “A Replacement Life” is that it sometimes feels that there is less to it than meets the eye. Fishman’s prose is often too self-conscious, too perfectly crafted to be real. “Nice sentences are like a beautiful woman who doesn’t know how to cook,” Slava’s grandfather chastises him, after he turns in an over-wrought draft claim. Given the preponderance of over-wrought sentences in the book, one assumes the irony is unintended.

Elsewhere, Fishman seems a bit too ready with the in-joke and the knowing aside. Arianna, unintentionally, reassures Slava that facts can be flexible. “This is why stories about a murder in the forgotten tribe of Waka-Waka… are easily the easiest to check. These people don’t read Century. They don’t care if you counted wrong how many stripes of cow dung they have on their face.”

As it happens, The New Yorker – Century’s template – ran into a spot of fact-checking bother concerning a similar story a couple of years back. Lawsuits were filed, the matter resolved less than satisfactorily. It’s a clever touch on Fishman’s part, but perhaps a bit too clever.

But it’s not the relatively small things like these that stop “A Replacement Life” from achieving its fullest potential. A signed-up member of the Soviet Jewish American School of Fiction – and I hope I got the adjectives in the right order – Fishman has a style that cleaves closest to that of the dean of the faculty, Gary Shteyngart. Like Shteyngart, Fishman uses humor to mitigate bleak observations about human nature; like Shteyngart, Fishman’s strengths lie in the anecdote and the comic aside.

These tricks may work well elsewhere, but here only serve to distract from “A Replacement Life’s” emotional heart: immigration, identity, negotiating the truths and falsehoods of the Holocaust, and everything that falls in between; Fishman does have sharp truths to tell about all these, but they feel somewhat blunted once run against the ironic detachment that characterizes Slava.

It’s a pity; “A Replacement Life” is a thoughtful book, replete with acutely observed scenes from migrant life. Slava takes Arianna around his old stomping grounds of south Brooklyn and Brighton Beach: “Where he saw desperation and scraping, she saw another act in New York’s great ethnic circus.”

Ultimately, “A Replacement Life” sets the bar for itself too high; because what it could have achieved is visible, just out of reach, its shortcomings resonate all the more.

Akin Ajayi is a freelance writer and editor, based in Tel Aviv.

Rob Liguori
Rob Liguori