Here Come the Russians and East Europeans!: Background information when reading A Replacement Life

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A Replacement Life

by Boris Fishman

A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman X
A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2014, 336 pages
    Jan 2015, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Alta Ifland
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About this Book

Here Come the Russians and East Europeans!

This article relates to A Replacement Life

Print Review

Boris FishmanGary ShteyngartBelarusian-born Boris Fishman is part of a group of outstanding American writers of Russian or East-European origin which includes Josip Novakovich, from Croatia; Aleksandar Hemon, from Bosnia; Olga Grushin, from Russia; and Gary Shteyngart, of Russian-Jewish origin (who is explored thoroughly in this review of Little Failure). With the exception of Olga Grushin, whose novels take place entirely in Russia, the others move between the Old and the New World, creating a universe populated with immigrants who may speak different languages but share similar characteristics: a tendency to congregate and chat for hours about the old days, good or bad; a profound disrespect for the law; a wariness of the American ways; a pathological fear of cold drafts; lack of inhibition when it comes to telling things how they are; a dubious work ethic; and a deep mistrust, rooted in their communist experience, of all institutions and authorities.

Olga GrushinIn an interview with Publishers Weekly, Fishman compares the American way of telling stories to the Russian way: the former is "too affected by logic, reason, linearity," while the latter is "almost dreamlike." One can see this in the writings of other Eastern European writers such as Josip Novakovich, whose stories, although told mostly in a realist way – some are based on the horrors of the Balkan wars, others on the horrors of WWII, and others on his childhood in Croatia in the 1960s – include some detail that escapes realism. Neither realism nor magic realism, this kind of writing belongs to a different aesthetic category, which could be called "aesthetic exaggeration" or "exaggerated realism" or "hyperrealism." Some of Novakovich's stories include absurdist elements and are hilarious; one could say that they represent aesthetic exaggerations, in the same way that caricatures are exaggerations. Other stories come from an oral tradition of storytelling, and sound like conversations overheard in a bar, which makes them likely to have an unstructured form, and to move in different directions. Josip Novakovich

Of all the above writers, Aleksandar Hemon is the most interested in politics, and this can be seen both from interviews he's given and from his writings. In the story "Szmura's Room" from Love and Obstacles, the immigrant, who has survived the Bosnian war and has made it to the land of the free, has his left eye blown out of its socket by the room's owner. A similar irony is at the core of the novel The Lazarus Project: The Jewish immigrant who escaped the pogrom in Kishinev in early twentieth century comes to Chicago only to be shot by the Chicago chief of police.

Aleksandar HemonLike Fishman's writing, Aleksandar Hemon's stories are somewhere in between the Western and Eastern European traditions. Also like Fishman, Hemon has reflected on the difference between the ways of telling stories in the two traditions. When you tell a story in Eastern Europe, even if it's a true story, you are expected to make up some things, otherwise it's considered boring. In other words, perhaps in that part of the world – from where all of these writers come – people believe "non-fiction" to be a rather puritanical concept.

Image of Boris Fishman by Rob Liguori
Image of Gary Shteyngart by Mark Coggins
Image of Olga Grushin by Tamara Beckwith Image of Josip Novakovich courtesy of
Image of Aleksandar Hemon by Velibor Bozovic from Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Filed under Books and Authors

Article by Alta Ifland

This "beyond the book article" relates to A Replacement Life. It originally ran in July 2014 and has been updated for the January 2015 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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