Slava Gelman emigrated to America from the Soviet Union when he was only a child. Though the rest of his family lives in South Brooklyn, he barely sees them; he lives alone in an almost empty apartment on the Upper East Side, where he desperately attempts to strip himself of his Russian Jewish roots. He does these things because he believes he will eventually be published in Century, the New Yorker-esque magazine where Slava works as an assistant for what seems to be their version of Andy Borowitz.
But one morning, Slava gets a call from his mother: his grandmother, who he loved best of his family and who he has barely seen for the past year, has died. She died alone in her hospital room, at a time when, even a year ago, Slava might have been with her. Though he is on the cusp of finally achieving publication at Century, it no longer matters; the person for whom he wanted that success is gone. He abandoned her for nothing.
After his grandmother’s funeral, his grandfather pulls Slava aside. A letter has arrived from the Conference on Material Claims against Germany. Slava’s grandmother was indeed a Holocaust survivor, but this letter has come too late for her. But — says Slava’s grandfather — you’re a writer, Slava; maybe I didn’t experience the Holocaust, but still, I suffered; so write a story about me to go on this form.
No, says Slava. It would be wrong. It would break the law. But then, he changes his mind. And he writes another letter, and another, and another.…
So Boris Fishman’s debut novel, A Replacement Life, is about fake Holocaust reparation claims, a premise that makes it sound a bit like it ought to place somewhere on Stormfront’s Best Books of 2014. But instead it is a weird and bittersweet story about justice, which is not always the same thing as the law, and the truth, which is not always the same thing as the facts. Written in a style that moves easily from memory to memory, association to association, A Replacement Life suggests many questions without really landing on any answers for them.
One such question is: Why does Slava agree to forge the reparations claims? He doesn’t really know. To his grandfather, he continues to offer only objections: this is wrong, we’re breaking the law, it’s not really the truth, we’ll go to prison. These arguments have no effect on his grandfather, who has little regard for the law and who points out that he did suffer during the war, just in the wrong place. And Slava isn’t doing it for the money; he’s doing it, in fact, for free, though a few people choose to pay him anyway.
When he is eventually caught by Otto, a bureaucrat from the Conference on Material Claims against Germany, Slava mirrors the arguments of his grandfather. All of these people suffered, he says. Justice demands that they receive reparations of some kind. But Otto is unimpressed. Nobody deserves reparations; there will never be justice for the Holocaust; and even if there could be, it would not involve the likes of him and Slava. “I do not believe in the sin of collection,” he says:
The war was over six years when I was born.… If I was born six years after the war, you were not even a shine in the eyes of your parents. Even your parents did not exist yet. The suffering of your grandparents belongs to you not any more than I belong to the crimes of my father.… I understand there cannot be justice. So all there can be, then, is the law.
To this speech, Slava can only offer his same arguments. But there is a justice at work in the letters Slava writes, albeit one neither he nor Otto seem inclined to recognize. Every story Slava tells in his forged letters is true. They are stories about his grandmother. Through all of his letters, Slava pursues her. He uses the excuse of writing the letters to coax from his grandfather the stories about his grandmother that his grandmother would not tell him. Her suffering will be recognized, many times over. He will not have abandoned her. The letter may have come too late, but Slava is still determined to get justice for his grandmother.
Otto, however, is willing to offer Slava a deal: if he will simply confess to the fake letters, Otto will quietly deny them without opening an official investigation. If Slava doesn’t confess, real letters may end up discarded along with his fakes. He has, he thinks, no choice but to tell the truth. And yet, if he does confess, won’t he simply be telling another kind of lie? Aren’t each of those letters, in the deepest sense, true?
No, says Otto; yes, says Slava’s grandfather. But now the question’s being posed to Slava. What is he going to say?
Slava’s final decision is not calculated to make anyone happy — not even, really, himself, and certainly not the reader. To these questions of justice and the truth, A Replacement Life offers a solution that’s not an answer but a dodge. These questions are not going to be answered.
But the dodge was inevitable; it makes the novel true even as it twists away from the truth. Faced with these questions, most of us dodge. Slava refuses to answer, so the reader is left to answer for him. Far from taking refuge in some kind ambiguity — what is truth? — the ending sticks Slava’s refusal like a knife into the audience’s side and leaves it there.
“You have to tell the truth,” Slava’s girlfriend, a fact checker at Century, says to him. He agrees. But there was a truth, and it wasn’t told. There was something to say, and it wasn’t said. Maybe there could be justice, but there won’t be. Once the book is over, it’s still not really over; these unresolved problems linger on, and they are maddening. But then, they should be.