Around the time of his grandmother’s death, Slava Gelman’s grandparents received a letter from an agency in Germany that is paying reparations to people who were incarcerated in concentration camps, ghettos, and forced labor battalions. The whole family knows that Mrs. Gelman lived in the Minsk Ghetto, but they don’t know much more than that. She never spoke of it. But her husband, Yevgeny, decides that Slava can write back to this agency claiming that he (Yevgeny) was in the ghetto. Yevgeny suffered, too, he argues, and the Germans were responsible. This is where Boris Fishman’s ethically sticky novel, A Replacement Life, begins. Unfortunately for Slava, things get even more complicated after this.
After his grandmother’s death, Slava wishes he had talked to her more. He loved her. She was more affectionate with him than his own mother was. The project—to write on his grandfather’s behalf—is initially justified as a way for Slava to write his way closer to his grandmother, by using what little he knows and imagining the rest. He doesn’t like the project, per se. Slava is trying to be a legitimate writer for a prestigious magazine called Century, but his articles are repeatedly rejected because he can’t force himself to write in the bland house style of the publication. The letter Slava writes for his grandfather (and grandmother), weirdly enough, contains some of his best writing.
If there had only been one letter, Slava might have been able to move on. Instead, Yevgeny decides that Slava should write more letters for some of the other elderly Russian Jews living around Brighton Beach and Brooklyn. They suffered as well, Yevgeny says; they just weren’t in concentration camps or ghettos. They escaped to the forests or fought for the Red Army. The German reparations agency has a narrow remit, leaving all these old people who endured World War II out in the cold. Two letters turn into three. Before long, Slava is writing for dozens of his grandfather’s friends, enemies, and frenemies. He ties himself into knots to justify his fraud, mostly blaming his Russian heritage and his grandfather specifically:
At every step, everyone had lied about everything to the one truth at the heart of it all—that abused people might flee the place of abuse—could be told.
Grandfather was already a liar—this kind of liar—when he twirled his finger in his temple that afternoon in Vienna, and Slava was young enough to understand such lies as a better kind of truth. It was’t until they’d come to America that the truth started to mean exactly what was said and not something else. The calculus had changed in America. Here you could afford a thirty-two-inch television on a doorman’s salary…Here you could afford to be decent. (276*)
Every time Slava wants to break free, his grandfather pulls him back in.
In addition to exploring the kind of casual corruption Yevgeny practices, Fishman’s novel takes a hard look at Holocaust narratives, especially fraudulent ones, and the nature of truth. The kind of letters Slava writes are based on facts; the events in them did happen to someone. But there is a question lurking just beneath what Slava and Yevgeny are up to. Do these letters cheapen the power of Holocaust narratives because they purport to be true? At least with historical fiction, we know up front that what we are about to read didn’t actually happen as depicted. But with letters that might become official testimony in Germany?
Objectively, there is no good in Slava and Yevgeny’s fraud. But subjectively, Slava does grow closer to his deceased grandmother by trying to document what she went through, whatever that was. And it does the elderly some good to talk about events they’ve been repressing for seventy years. The fraud also shines a light on the sheer scope of experiences from World War II. We mostly hear about the soldiers or the survivors. We rarely hear about the displaced and the confused.
A Replacement Life is a bold book. I didn’t love it, but I was interested in Slava’s relationship with his family and their history. Plus, I’m always game for a novel that makes me wonder about truth and lies.
* Quote is from the 2014 Harper Perennial kindle edition.