A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas
by Maxim D. Shrayer
Cherry Orchard Books , 140 pp
Reviewed by Janice Weizman
For Ashkenazi Jews the world over, the lives and experiences of Jews of Russia are a sort of “road not taken” , a possible answer to a hindsighted “what if?” speculation, as in, What if my great grandparents (or grandparents or parents) never left Russia? What if instead of their lives unfolding in the New World (or as it was later called, The Free World) over the twentieth century, they were lived out in the less than hospitable places where their ancestors had made their home for hundreds of years? Revolution rather than immigration. Stalin, instead of Churchill and Roosevelt. Tereshkova and Laika versus Armstrong and Glenn. Lining up for toilet paper, as opposed to, say, the line up at Disneyland.
The unique genre of tales that Russian/Jewish/American (and Canadian) writers have to tell are more than mere immigration stories, or accounts about transitioning out of a Soviet mindset. How could they be, when every line is haunted by a subtext of stifled yet sustained Jewish identity? A set of co-ordinates that has endured the worst of what the 20th century had to offer, yet survives, surfacing in surprising ways. A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas is a collection of three episodes in the life of Simon Reznikov, who, like his creator, was born in Moscow in 1967. The stories take place during a ten year period stretching from the summer of 1986 to the spring of 1996–heady years during which Soviet communism collapsed and for the first time in decades, East and West were accessible to each other and open to all. Though each narrative focuses on small, personal events in Reznikov’s biography, the three stories together capture something of this historical moment, enacting the passage of his community out of one era and into another.
The first story, “Bohemian Spring” opens in 1993, when Simon, a 26 year old doctoral student in comparative literature, is sworn in, together with his parents, as a US citizen. Soon afterwards he travels to Prague to research the newly discovered archive of a Felix Gregor a forgotten Czech-Jewish writer whose work is the subject of Simon’s dissertation. It’s a journey that throws Simon’s complex identity into confusing resolution, as layers of memory, language and history pile up chaotically. When a library assistant refuses to allow him to access to a box of Gregor’s work, he tells her:
“Pani Zrzava, with all due respect, I was given complete access to Gregor’s archive.”
“Gospodin Rexnikov.” Pani Zrzava’s lips started trebling. She addressed him with the Russian word for “mister”.
“Gospodin Rexnikov, you are very pushy, aren’t you?”
Here it finally comes, Simon thought. The pushy Jew stuff. It’s taken her awhile.
“It must be your past. The Soviet invasiveness, the sort that my poor mother still fears even worse than the German discipline.”
“No Pani Zrzava,” Simon replied slowly and quietly. “It’s also my American present. And my Jewish everything.”
“That’s a taboo subject,” Pani Zrzava cut him off. “And don’t even think of accusing me of prejudice. My father was a Jew.”
As Simon explores the life of Felix Gregor through the letters, photographs and records he’s left behind, he embarks on an affair with an archival assistant by the name of Milena. When he discovers the last story ever written by Gregor, a short story entitled "The Jew’s Castle”, the two take a trip to Marienbad in order to retrace Gregor’s steps. Though Kafka seems to inform every aspect of this story without appearing in it, his specter offers yet another iteration of the problematic question of Jewish identity in Europe. It is a quandary from which there is no escape, neither for Simon, nor, perhaps, for Jews anywhere.
The second piece, “Brotherly Love,” is set in motion when Simon receives an email from his Russian ex-girlfriend Sasha, who is now living in New Haven. The email brings on recollections of their first meeting in 1986 at an Estonian resort town, where Simon and his friends rented a cottage together for the first time. Simon’s memories are idyllic and poignant, all the more so in light of the fact that this was the last summer they spent together. Years later, he still mourns what was lost:
“From his Soviet youth Simon Reznikov missed camaraderie the most. He had been in America for nearly nine years, and yet his best male friends were still living in the old country. He had made new friends in college and graduate school,but it just wasn’t the same. In Russian they were like brothers to one another. …How they admired one another’s youthful wit and abandon. It was nearly impossible to explain it to an American.”
The depictions of these friendships and first loves are among the most compelling scenes in the book. They call up a lost world−a place and time where longing for somewhere else is filled with promise.
"At night young people’s social activities moved to the badminton and tennis courts at the center of a seaside park. Rows of green wooden benches encircled the courts, and on these benches the gang would sit for hours, trading witticisms….Just as the country had felt the first pangs of reforms in the mid-1980’s, a cocktail lounge opened in the former casino. There was a sickening dearth of entertainment for Soviet young people, and Simon would later tell American acquaintances how they fantasized about sitting in a smoky jazz bar somewhere in New York City…”
Simon’s reunion with Sasha is sweet and wistful, but the story ends on a very dark note, throwing what were warm memories into a different and disturbing focus.
It is in the third and final story, “Borscht Belt” that the contrast between an American Jewish and Russian Jewish sensibility is at its most radical. It’s 1988, and Simon, a literature student at Brown, is debating where to go on his summer vacation. An old friend from Moscow, Styopa Agarunov (now Steve Agarun) suggests trying the Blue Bell Inn, a hotel in the Catskills, now owned by a Russian couple from New York.
"They used to call it the ‘Borscht Belt’."
"Why the hell the ‘Borscht Belt’ " asked Simon.
"There used to be a lot of Jewish resorts there." Styopa explained.
"Borscht Belt doesn’t sound Jewish at all." Simon said. “Russian, Ukrainian, but not Jewish”
“Well perhaps to you it doesn’t," Styopa conceded. “But here it used to sound Jewish….”
Simon and Styopa arrange to take the trip with their respective grandmothers in tow. It doesn’t take Simon long to see that the resort’s days of glory are behind it. The place seems to exist in a bizarre time warp, the site weighted with nostalgia, but for two very different, if parallel, sets of memories.
"By the end of their first day in the Catskills, two things had become apparent. The resort was living out its past grandeur, and there were no adult American-born Jews left among its clients. All the adults and also some of the older kids…had been born in the Soviet Union−when it was already teetering but still standing. In some ways, the resort itself was like the country they had come from…drowning in the myths of its past."
Simon catches the attention of an aging grand dame, Madame Yankelson, who flirts with him shamelessly, telling him, “You and I will have a roman.” But his real love interest in this story is Marina, Americanized, pretty and bright, but hailing from a city in the southeast Ukraine, with unsuitably simple origins. Nonetheless, Simon becomes infatuated with her.
“They had talked about visiting each other once a month, his driving up to Binghamton, her taking a bus to Providence. It sounded, vaguely, sweetly, like an American movie Simon had yet to live. Prior to emigration, he had only dated girls who lived in or studied in Moscow. The whole institution of long-distance dating was practically nonexistent in his Soviet youth, unless it was framed by the scenario of a boy drafted to the military and a girl waiting or pretending to wait. And there were also the differences between Marina’s background and Simon’s, which the English language of love masked but never obliterated."
The final pages of the story take us thirty years into the future, when Simon is an academic with children of his own, the pain and adventure of emigration far behind him, and the tumult of the twentieth century behind us all. This quiet, seemingly successful journey manages to leave the reader with a feeling that nothing, but also everything, has happened. Maybe one doesn’t need to read long historical tombs to understand the psychology of an era. Apparently, three short, wistful novellas have the capacity to evoke it just as well.