A Replacement Life By Boris Fishman

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022015_mishmash_bookIn this charming novel, 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.

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.

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. Transliterated but untranslated Russian expressions annoy without interfering with understanding the plot.

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