Tuesday, August 05, 2014

"A Replacement Life" by Boris Fishman

"Berta conveyed her condolences the only way that she could. Two foldout tables in Grandfather's living room heaved with plates rimmed in gold filigree: duck with prunes; pickled watermelon, potato pancakes with dill, garlic, and farmer cheese. A dropped fork or a glass emptied of Berta's trademark cranberry water sent her bulleting into the kitchen with startling litheness."

Mourners ate well in Boris Fishman's book A Replacement Life. Slava, the main character, in response to seeing this table, thinks back to other meals at one of the same tables, prepared by other helpers than Berta, "uniformly ambrosial, as if they all attended the same Soviet Culinary School No. 1."

He thinks of "Stewed eggplant; chicken steaks in egg batter; marinated peppers with buckwheat honey; herring under potatoes, beets, carrots, and mayonnaise; bow-tie pasta with kasha, caramelized onions, and garlic; ponchiki with mixed-fruit preserves; pickled cabbage; pickled eggplant; meat in aspic; beet salad with garlic and mayonnaise; kidney beans with walnuts; kharcho and solyanka; fried cauliflower; whitefish under stewed carrots; salmon soup; kidney beans with the walnuts swapped out for caramelized onions; sour cabbage with beef; pea soup with corn, vermicelli and fried onions." (Kindle locations 318-331)

Feasts of Russian foods were served in the homes of immigrants who had fled from Soviet collective life to freedom in New York, or so it might seem. The Brooklyn where they lived "was as ugly as the rows of apartment blocks they had left behind in the Soviet Union. Perhaps that was why they lived here." (loc. 4665)

The other day, I mentioned how Soviet food plays such a large role in numerous recent books by Russian-Jewish-American authors. Obviously, A Replacement Life is no different. Eventually Fishman gets to everyone's favorite Soviet dish, salad Olivier: "Galochka, who was setting a plate of herring in oil on a lacy tablecloth, looked up. The girls were working with daunting facility. One was setting the table with gold-rimmed plates, another following with filigreed thimbles, and a third unloding powls of salad Olivier and boiled potatoes." (loc. 2376)

Along with the food lots of vodka and other strong drink flow, as the events of the story proceed. Food is only one reflection of the attitudes expressed by Slava's relatives and their extended circle of relations and lifelong friends and friendly enemies, old rivals, and arms-length loved ones. Slava gets into the middle of their complex nets. At the beginning of the story, he's temporarily escaped them, but the death of his grandmother and the mourning rituals (including the food in the first quote) bring him back.

Though he has a mainstream job and a 100% American girlfriend, the novel begins when Slava is suddenly enveloped in everything about them, particularly in the stories of their past. Just as his grandmother dies, the older members of this Jewish immigrant circle have all found out that they might be eligible for reparations money from Germany -- if they can prove that they suffered in certain ways during World War II. Slava is enlisted to tell their stories and to embellish or even outright invent them if that's what it takes. Everyone suffered, but they weren't necessarily in a Concentration Camp, didn't necessarily fit the stringent criteria required to qualify for the money.

Slava tries to help them create narratives that will be convincing and fit the criteria -- not necessarily honestly. What really happens as he works with them is that after years of silence, a large number of stories are suddenly brought out of hiding -- especially the stories of Slava's grandmother that she never told while living.

As Slava does his research, also looking up information in the library, he becomes aware of much that had been suppressed, as well as dealing with his conscience about the dishonesty in what he's doing. The result is a very penetrating treatment of the history of Soviet Jews in World War II. Perhaps Fishman's readers are familiar with the stories of Jewish city or village dwellers who tried to join the Russian or Belarusian or Polish partisans against the Nazis, but were often rejected or betrayed by the Christian partisans. Perhaps these stories are news to them. (I heard a number of lectures on this subject a couple of years ago, and was fascinated by what Fishman created out of various historical elements.)

It's a very interesting tale, with lots of vivid characters and lots of connections between modern life and history. You could look at it as a study of memories and personal history and how grandchildren find or might find out about their seemingly ordinary grandparents. Or as a story about what's true and what's made up. I'm not going to belabor any of this. It's a readable and enjoyable book -- and by the way, it's very funny.

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