I was looking forward to reading this novel both for yet another oblique perspective on the second world war and its aftermath and for the sheer audacity of the premise, reminiscent of Shalom Auslander’s fictionalisation of an elderly Anne Frank in Hope: a Tragedy. Unfortunately for me, the novel failed to deliver the promised humour; nor, given that Slava was required to invent the survivor narrative, his grandmother having shared little of her trauma with her family, did I learn as much as I’d hoped. I also found the flashy prose slowed the pace, especially in the first two-thirds of the novel. However, I became more engaged towards the end with the appearance of Otto, German civil servant and amateur sleuth, raising moral questions about whether, and if so under what circumstances, it’s ethical to lie.
The Gelmans managed to leave the Soviet Union only because all sides had agreed to pretend that they were going to Israel. The Soviet government wouldn’t release Soviet citizens directly to the United States. But it would release its Jews to Israel, “family reunification” being less humiliating to the USSR as the refugees’ reason for emigration than discontent with socialism. If there was no family in Israel, as there usually wasn’t, it was manufactured. […] At every step, everyone had lied about everything so the one truth at the heart of it all – that abused people might flee the place of abuse – could be told. (p276)
A Replacement Life is also a novel about transgenerational trauma and the immigrant experience of coming-of-age: at the beginning of the novel, Slava has rejected his background in an attempt to fulfil the American dream; by the end, he is prepared to heroically defend his roots. Hats off to Boris Fishman for exploring this important topic but, for an account of a young person collecting Holocaust survivor narratives, I rather preferred Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us. Thanks to One (an imprint of Pushkin Press who published By Blood) for my review copy of A Replacement Life.
I didn’t think I was capable of rising to Charli Mills’ latest flash fiction challenge, to write a 99-word story on the subject of angels, until this novel unlocked my creativity:
The Angel of Death raged through our people, anointing us with yellow stars. Some perished in gas ovens, others by disease and starvation; some survived through happenstance, determination and guile. Even once the purge was over, we were forced from the debris of our homes. Exiled among strangers, the less we remembered, the more we grew content.
Years passed before they came for our stories, armed with notebook and pen. What did these well-fed youths know of suffering? What did they care? Yet when they promised compensation, we opened up our hearts. The Avenging Angel had arrived at last.
Finally, I hope this musical accompaniment is to your taste.
Do you think it's ever more ethical to lie?
Comments welcome, as always, on any aspect of this post.