Understanding the Villains; or, Stranger than Fiction

Donna Tartt, the author of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner 
The Goldfinch
, was once told by Ken Kesey, the author of 
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
, never to read her press: “I’ll tell you why, kid. The good things don’t help and the bad things still hurt.” A modified version of this guidance appears in virtually every testimonial by a fabled writer: You can’t worry about your audience; you must write for yourself.

Read without nuance, sentiments like these surely encourage the view that writers are elitist, self-serving navel-gazers. The truth feels more complex. As a writer, I am deeply engaged with my imaginary audience. I write because I have things I want to say, and a way I want to say them, but I want them to be heard. I write to connect. I write to have a conversation. At the same time, bad things happen on the page when you start writing with an overly concrete audience in mind. Instead of looking for new expression, you start saying things you think your audience will like. Entertainment is a perfectly honorable reason to write and read. But I believe writers have an obligation to push their readers—and themselves—to think about things they may not be overly eager to think about. It’s how literature, and, in some ways, the world moves forward.

I bring all this up because my debut novel, 
A Replacement Life
, out this week, is on a subject that gets readers going: A young man starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn. I began writing the novel in the fall of 2009, inspired by my experience filling out my grandmother’s restitution paperwork in the 1990s (she was an inmate of the Minsk ghetto). My family had emigrated from the former Soviet Union only a decade before; I was just a teenager, but had the best English, so the paperwork was handed to me.

Two things about the application struck me—first, the burden of proof seemed remarkably low. Understandably—ghetto inmates didn’t get confirmation vouchers on being incarcerated. So a matter of the historical record became a mater of storytelling—if you could tell the story persuasively, you were in. This was catnip for a young writer. The other thought was less pretty—it felt like only a matter of time before someone decided to take advantage of that low burden of proof and collect money for invented, but well-relayed, suffering. And so I decided to write a novel imagining exactly that.

Was this sacrilegious? Is it sacrilegious to imagine Jews abusing the memory of the Holocaust for profit? The answer is complicated by the fact that in the novel, the antagonists are ex-Soviet Jewish émigrés, exploiting the system just as they had in the Soviet Union. In the USSR, this behavior was far more justified, if not honorable: They lived in a vicious, abusive state that neither provided enough for, nor trusted, its citizens; discriminated terribly against Jews; and punished innovation, destroyed opportunity, and fostered paranoia. America is far, far more generous, but it’s hard to shift habits formed over decades, especially as this country, too, provides too many examples of people in power exploiting it. If you are middle-aged or older, think of yourself moving to China, or, better yet, North Korea, because that is how alien the USSR was to America. Do you think it would be easy to adopt your new legal and cultural norms?

Add to this the fact that the “sufferers” forging claims in my novel did not need those quotation marks—they had suffered unimaginably during the war; as Jews in the Soviet Union; and as immigrants. Only they hadn’t suffered in the exact way they needed to have suffered in order to qualify for reparations legally. The people who truly owed them—the Soviets, the Russians, though the Germans, too—weren’t offering, not for what they went through. How would God—as opposed to the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany—adjudicate the false claim of someone who had three limbs blown off defending against the German invasion, but did not qualify for reparations legally because Red Army soldiers were ineligible? The false claim of the sole survivor of a family that lost six, eight, twelve, seventeen members—six, eight, twelve, seventeen people forever too dead to apply for restitution legally? And yet: They were breaking the law. I wanted to present my readers with characters, and a situation, that refused to dissolve into easy classification.

What I didn’t count on was how prescient my imagining was. A year after I started writing, the FBI and the District Attorney’s Office in New York exposed a massive Holocaust-restitution-claim fraud ring, consisting largely of ex-Soviet Jews, defrauding restitution funds largely in the ways I imagined. (The fraud had been going on since the 1990s, but was not exposed till 2010.) I wrote an article in Tablet Magazine making some of the points above—prosecute the indicted to the fullest extent of the law, I wrote, but let’s not dismiss them as evil.

The comments that rained down on the article were unsparing. I was eviscerated for defending “gonefs,” for moral relativism regarding the Holocaust, for exploiting the occasion to promote my book, for celebrating restitution-claim fraud. Perhaps I failed in achieving, in the article, the nuance I hoped for, but I was also disappointed in the reaction. I wish I could have been like Ken Kesey and looked away; I couldn’t; I wanted to have the conversation. It was a hard one.

In that article, I was describing the book. Nearly four years (and eleven drafts) later, the “finished” version of that manuscript is seeing the light of day. I know I shouldn’t pay attention to what my readers will say. Only I don’t think I will manage it.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

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