Soviet immigration fuels ‘engaging frolic’ through lives of imagination

Soviet immigration fuels ‘engaging frolic’ through lives of imagination

In the charming novel, “A Replace-ment Life” by Boris Fishman, newly out in trade paperback, would-be writer Slava Gelman, stuck in a low-

level, clerk-like job at a prestigious magazine, stumbles into an outlet for his creative desires.

He invents biographies to help his grandfather and the old man’s Soviet-émigré acquaintances qualify for German compensation payments – whether they deserve any or, like his grandfather, do not.

It’s wrong, and Slava knows it, but in ways that make sense in this clever book, he begins innocently, as a way to create a story around the scanty details he knows of his late grandmother — a survivor who kept her history private. The catalyst is a letter received shortly before her death inviting her to apply to the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany.

The applicant is to “describe, in as much detail as you can, where the Subject was during the years 1939 to 1945.”

Slava creates a touching narrative long on suffering but short on verifiable dates and places. It’s gender neutral, and on a whim, he writes in as applicant the name of his crafty grandfather, who hid from the Soviet draft in Uzbekistan until nearly war’s end, then joined the navy.

But grandfather is a braggart, and Slava starts getting calls from other aged Russian Jews in “Soviet Brooklyn,” asking him to write applications for them.

Slava, who knows how impoverished they are, can’t seem to turn them down. He has fled his immigrant community to Americanize in less-ethnic, more-sophisticated Manhattan. But his mitzvah forgeries propel him back nightly into a world of Russians who left constructive lives in a stifling, often vicious tyranny to become aged nobodies in freedom.

Previously one to toil late at his job — skimming newspapers for humorous errors for a column called The Hoot — he conceals his nocturnal activities from his bedmate, the beautiful Arianna Bock. She sits across his office cubicle wall and is, in a cute twist, the magazine’s fact checker. A Californian, she explains our people’s customs to Slava, a Jew of 25 who’s never been inside a synagogue. As she sits alone at night, she thinks he’s working, which is both true and false.

I won’t give away more of the plot, which, once you get into it, is an engaging frolic. Fishman writes cleverly and breezily, if you don’t mind occasionally puzzling over an odd, convoluted sentence, abrupt transitions and deviations from English grammar — and I’m not talking about the cadences of old Russians speaking fractured, accented English, which he captures beautifully. Transliterated but untranslated Russian expressions annoy without interfering with understanding the plot.

An example of the strange: “In Bryant Park, Midtown was sweating through salads.” Translation: On a beastly hot day, Midtown Manhattan office workers sat eating lunch in Bryant Park.

But there’s also the lovely: “Outside, it was less decisively scorching than the day before. The broom of the seasons was starting to sweep summer under the rug.”

And, in an immigrant’s apartment: “On Israel’s wall was a pharmacy calendar, a bottle of Lipitor reclining suggestively in place of a supermodel. There were four identical calendars from other Russian pharmacies neatly stacked underneath, as if Israel were going to do the year over.”

Belarus-born Fishman came to the United States at 9. If ever a would-be, he’s now is an accomplished writer, appearing in prestigious magazines such as The New Yorker.

His title raises questions: Is it only that Slava replaces his grandmother’s concealed history with one he invents? Or does a Slava-invented biography improve the facts of someone’s actual life? Might “A Replacement Life” mean restricted but useful Soviet lives being replaced by new, unsatisfying ones in America? Or has Slava replaced his underachieving existence with a new life, writing fiction that makes him a hero in the community he abandoned.

You choose.

Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.