Two acclaimed nonfiction writers examine the before and after of World War II, respectively, prewar Europe and postwar Russia—both imperiled by tyrants.
Kathleen Spivack and Paul Goldberg may be first-time novelists, but they are seasoned writers. Spivack is a poet and author of the memoir, With Robert Lowell and His Circle (2012). Goldberg is a journalist who has written two books about the human rights movement in Soviet Russia. Each brings a keen perspective to their daringly imagined, historically pegged novels about, respectively, the brink of WWII and the Stalinist nightmare that followed.
A macabre fairy tale of monstrous fascinations, horrific
exploitations, and desperate strategies of survival.
Spivack, whose father, famed management guru Peter Drucker, left Austria, his homeland, in the mid-1930s to begin his professional life in the U.S., portrays Jewish refugees from Nazi Austria in her hallucinatory first novel, Unspeakable Things. Herbert, a man of secrets and influence, tries to help others in his predicament, including the courageous, bizarrely afflicted Tolstoi String Quartet, even as his own family suffers. Spivack’s illumination of her characters’ loss and fears, set against blaring, brash New York in grating contrast to shadowed, tyrannized Europe, are gorgeous and despairing in their precision, yet this is not a work of straightforward historical fiction. Instead, it is a macabre fairy tale of monstrous fascinations, horrific exploitations, and desperate strategies of survival.
Spivack’s villain is an evil doctor intent on master-race genetic engineering, while the most seductive figure in her menagerie of the damaged is Herbert’s beloved cousin, brilliant, tiny Anna, who is called the Rat for the punishing deformity that bends her into an animal crouch. Strangely alluring and utterly bewitching, she tells Herbert’s young granddaughter about the “unspeakable things” she endured in Russia, especially at the hands of the notorious mystical faith healer, Rasputin. Amid gothic eroticism and chamber-of-horrors surrealism, Spivack considers the epic betrayal of the European dream that art, culture, and rationality can triumph over hate, malevolence, and terror. Alas, the tragic war between these opposing states of mind continues to rage.
Goldberg emigrated from Moscow to the U.S. at 14 in 1973 and became a reporter focused on Soviet dissidents and cancer research. His firsthand knowledge of Soviet life and his medical expertise inform The Yid, his wily, rambunctiously entertaining first novel about an unlikely group of valorous would-be assassins and one of history’s most alarming close calls. A clue to the modus operandi of his tale’s irresistible characters is found in Goldberg’s journalistic agility and tenacity, which inspired the New York Times to describe him as “a Russian émigré with a quirky sense of humor and a thirst for the jugular.”
In late February 1953, a Soviet security detail is on a routine late-night run to arrest a Jew, an old Yid, Solomon Levinson, once an actor at the celebrated Moscow State Yiddish Theater. Tall, thin, and leaning on a cane, he’s an easy mark, if only he would stop talking. Friederich Lewis is an engineer from Omaha and a rare being in the USSR, an African American, leading to his often being hailed as “Paul Robeson.” When Lewis arrives at his longtime friend Levinson’s apartment later that night, the Yid is still in full performance mode and quickly recruits Lewis for a mission that grows more ambitious, dangerous, and outrageous by the minute.
This unlikely duo is soon joined by Aleksandr Kogan, a surgeon who, like Levinson, served in the Red Army. He is also targeted for arrest as part of Stalin’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” a genocidal scheme involving the spreading of lies about syringe-wielding Jewish “killer doctors,” fear-mongering calculated to whip up enough “anti-Semitic frenzy” to fuel a massive pogrom followed by the deportation of any Jewish survivors to the Siberian Arctic.
Spectacularly incisive, humanizing, and
comedically cathartic theater of the absurd.
As the number of Levinson’s motley followers grows, so, too, does the body count. Goldberg’s rapier-like, galvanizing novel unwinds in three acts punctuated by hilarious, flashing, and slashing dialogue as these rebels of temperaments deliberate and impulsive, skills invaluable and surprising, and memories painful and inspiriting, banter, lewdly insult each other, and argue over Shakespeare, Pushkin, Akhmatova, medical ethics, the broken promise of socialism, anti-Semitism, and racism. Ultimately, they decide that there is only one thing to do: come up with a plan to kill Stalin before he annihilates more than two millions Jews.
As the doomsday clock runs down, Goldberg deftly presents plays within plays, in which his heroic, smart, acerbic, wildly improvising, cool-under-fire characters use stagecraft to attempt an impossible mission. Goldberg ingeniously captures the brutality and lunacy of Stalin’s rule as well as Russia’s stoicism in this spectacularly incisive, humanizing, and comedically cathartic theater of the absurd.
This review first appeared in the October 15, 2015, issue of Booklist.