When Boris Fishman began writing “A Replacement Life,” his critically lauded debut novel about a frustrated writer who forges Holocaust restitution claims for Soviet Jews in Brooklyn, he had no idea that the premise of his work-in-progress was, in fact, playing out in real time.
In the fall of 2009, while Fishman was at work on a first draft, a cadre of Russian-Jewish employees of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany — the organization responsible for distributing restitution funds to survivors — was doing in the real world precisely what Fishman’s protagonist, Slava Gelman, was doing in the fictional world: appropriating bits of lives and creating falsehoods.
The primary difference, however, is that Slava, a 25-year-old junior editor at Century — a prestigious mid-town magazine that smacks of the New Yorker, where Fishman himself was once a fact-checker — does not get paid for his trouble. In fact, Slava, whose career is going nowhere, does it for the glory and to be closer to his grandmother, Sofia, who dies before he has a chance to mine her stories.
It is no coincidence that Fishman, 35, a Soviet Jewish immigrant whose maternal grandmother survived the Minsk Ghetto, actually filled out his grandmother’s restitution forms in the mid-1990s, less than a decade after he and his family arrived in America from the former Soviet Union.
“What struck me,” Fishman said in a phone interview, “was that the application didn’t require much documentation. The thought I had was, ‘My God, it’s a matter of time before someone has a field day with these applications.’ It comes down to whether or not you can tell a good story.”
Fishman will be in the Bay Area for a series of book talks starting Sunday, Oct. 12 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
Having grown up in a community of gifted storytellers, Fishman understood that the chances of that occurring were indeed high. The author, who now lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, said that while the perpetrators of the real-life crime clearly abused the system, he is not willing to dismiss them as “pure evil.”
“These people were second-class citizens because they were Jews,” Fishman said. “And for anyone, the former Soviet Union was a rough place to live. Sometimes you couldn’t get basic things without knowing someone or without paying extra on the side.”
In fact, Slava’s colorful grandfather, Yevgeny Gelman, is known to his fellow Russians as “a child of other people’s gardens.” Famous for acquiring caviar, cognac and minks — luxuries afforded only to high-ups in the Communist Party — he once taped 15 sticks of salami into his overcoat on a hot day and distributed them to agents of influence, including his daughter’s kindergarten teacher and “the woman in ticketing at the Aeroflot office on Karl Marx Street.”
Not surprisingly, it’s also Yevgeny who initiates the restitution scheme when he asks his literary-minded grandson to forge his own claim upon receiving an application letter for his late wife. But unlike his late wife — who, like Fishman’s real-life grandmother, survived the Minsk Ghetto — Yevgeny dodged the Red Army draft and sat out the war in Uzbekistan.
It is this gray area, this land of moral ambiguity, that most interests Fishman. No, Yevgeny was not a Holocaust survivor per se, but as a Jew in the former Soviet Union, he certainly saw his fair share of suffering. “Maybe I didn’t suffer in the exact way I needed to have suffered,” he tells Slava in the novel, “but they made sure to kill all the people who did.”
This sentiment ultimately convinces Slava, who is having an affair with the whip-smart fact-checker in the next cubicle, to set aside his inhibitions and forge his grandfather’s claim. Before he knows it, scores of elderly Russian Jews, referred by Yevgeny, are clamoring for his skills.
Spurred on by the egoic satisfaction of people actually asking him to write (he can’t get a story published in Century, where his primary task is to scan local newspapers for flubbed copy and make fun of them), Slava spins dozens upon dozens of tales.
While Fishman skillfully conjures a host of outrageous Russian-Jewish characters — among them a man who renames himself Israel and is devastated by his son’s sudden religiosity and move to the Jewish state — he most dazzles when writing about Slava’s relationship with Arianna Bock, the voluptuous fact-checker who sits close by at Century and disapproves of his scheme.
“She introduces him to the guiding idea of the novel, which is that life is spent in the gray,” Fishman explained. “At the start of the novel, Slava is an emotional fundamentalist. He thinks, ‘Am I Russian? Or am I American? Is this just? Or unjust?’ She introduces him to the idea that almost everything is always a little bit of both.”
Fishman’s next novel, slated for publication in 2016, parses very different territory. Titled “Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo,” the story revolves around a Russian-immigrant couple from New Jersey that adopts a child from Montana. The child turns out to be “feral,” in Fishman’s words, setting the stage for a 42-year-old woman’s soul-searching journey in Big Sky Country.
“I didn’t want to write another book from the perspective of a Russian-Jewish male,” Fishman said. “It’s good for one book, but I didn’t want to lean on it.”
Boris Fishman joins author Molly Antopol at Litquake, 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 12, Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. For more Fishman talks, see calendar, 23a. www.borisfishman.com