Slava Gelman has it made in Boris Fishman’s debut, The Replacement Life. With a junior staff position at a prestigious literary magazine, a Manhattan apartment and an assimilated American girlfriend, he’s more than just miles away from his childhood in Minsk or the Russian enclave in Brooklyn where the rest of his family lives. But when Slava is woken by an early morning phone call from his mother telling him his grandmother has died, his carefully constructed life threatens to come crashing down around him.
Self-effacing and quiet, Slava’s grandmother was a Holocaust survivor who chose not to share the stories of her wartime experience in the Minsk ghetto. After her funeral, Slava’s grandfather, Yevgeny, who spent the war in hiding, pressures Slava into falsifying a restitution letter to the German government based on his wife’s experience. Once other friends and neighbors hear what Slava has done, they come with similar requests, convinced that their experience as Jews and as second-class citizens in the Soviet Union entitles them to a similar payout, even if they didn’t spend the war in camps or ghettos. Slava is consumed with guilt over not knowing his grandmother’s story, though he is torn between wanting to help and a kind of moral disgust at his neighbors who want to profit from tragedy. At the same time, he knows the letters are his best work, better than anything he’s written for the magazine. Most troubling of all is his nagging suspicion that this fraud may be just. Perhaps all suffering should be rewarded.
The Replacement Life is beautifully written and occasionally quite funny, but the novel struggles in finding the right balance between Slava’s moral dilemma and the more quotidian depictions of love and work. Fishman was inspired by his grandmother’s life and real-life instances of Russian immigrants forging restitution requests, elements which offer an additional layer to the already complicated paradox of remaining loyal to one’s community while moving bravely into a new world.