Off the Shelf: Russian absurdity and Jewish dissents

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When reading the opening pages of Paul Goldberg’s first novel “The Yid,” I groaned because it seemed clear it was going to be so depressing. Instead, it turned into a crazy, joyous, wonderful ride. I wasn’t the only person to love the book: it was a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the National Jewish Book Award’s Goldberg Prize for Debut Fiction. While Goldberg’s second novel “The Chateau” didn’t win any awards, it contained one of the greatest comic monsters I’ve ever had the pleasure to read about. To say that I had high expectations for his third novel “The Dissident” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) would not be an exaggeration, although I reminded myself not to expect greatness each time. Fortunately, Goldberg succeeds once again, only this time, he delivers a great satire about refuseniks living in the Soviet Union during the mid-1970s. My only regret is that I’m not familiar with all of the details of Russian life and literature mentioned. If I enjoyed it as much as I did without that knowledge, anyone familiar with all the Russian nuances will have even more fun. 

The novel opens just before Henry Kissinger, the United States secretary of state, is due to meet with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Jewish Russian dissidents are hoping the visit will result in them being allowed to emigrate from the U.S.S.R. But Goldberg’s initial focus is a love story, telling how Viktor, a Jewish refusenik, met Oksana, the love of his life. Their whirlwind romance was supposed to culminate with marriage, although one not sanctioned by the state because the ceremony will be a Jewish one. When Viktor’s Jewish friend – who is supposed to be bringing someone who has the knowledge to make the marriage kosher, at least Jewish-wise – fails to appear, Viktor goes in search of him and discovers a murder: in fact, the double murder of two men in the midst of having sexual relations. Even though Viktor believes he left no trace of himself in the murder room, he is picked up by the KGB and given a choice: discover the real murderer or be convicted of the crime himself. Oh, and he only has nine days to do this because the KGB wants to close the case before Kissinger arrives for his visit. 

This being a Russian novel, there is no way the plot can be simple. All readers need to do is look at the cast of characters listed in the first pages of the book to realize there are going to be numerous complications. That list of characters proved handy because it was really difficult to keep track of all of the Russian names and the characters’ occupations. (OK, I confess, I looked at it a lot when reading the first half of the novel. Those names are long!) The characters include a variety of refuseniks, other Russian dissidents, American newspaper reporters looking for scoops, a Russian Orthodox priest of Jewish descent and a variety of writers, KGB agents and the parents of the wedded couple. The most fun character is Norman Dymshitz, who is in Moscow to visit his newspaper reporter son, but whose amazing abilities reminded me of the wonderful hero of “The Yid.”

What adds greatly to the fun is the humorous – well, really sarcastic – tone of the narrator. For example, when giving background information about the building where the newlyweds are spending their time, he described the history of the one-room apartment as having been “obtained through a series of complex exchanges that tracked a series of parental divorces. These divorces and their real estate sequelae can be enumerated in mind-numbing detail... but neither the teller nor the listener would become a better human being as a result of this transfer of data.” One reporter hates interviewing refuseniks and suggests that “if you love America, if you love Israel, you want guys like [him] to stay in refusal here, as secret weapons. His kind will bore you to death. Keep them here, and they will obliterate Communism from within.” There is also the old joke that Viktor remembers when dealing with the KGB: “‘I can already tell this is going to be a bad day,’ says a Jew facing a firing squad.” And these are the comments I can print in a family friendly paper. Oh, and if you are a big fan of Kissinger (I am not), then you won’t be pleased by the commentary offered about him.

If you were a fan of Goldberg’s other novels, I assume that you ordered a copy of this book the minute you knew it was being published. (And if you are and didn’t, why are you wasting your time reading this? Order that book now!) OK, so I’m prejudiced: I love a great romp with serious undertones and “The Dissident” is one. I know that not every reader will love Goldberg’s work, but this reader (yes, me!) is hoping that he is already working on his next novel.