Imagine your surprise. You excuse yourself to step outside for some fresh air or a puff of enlightenment. A few minutes later you go back inside and—say what? No one recognizes you! Years have passed and you’ve become a stranger. Variations of this time-warp, lost identity theme appears in fairy tales around the world. We have our Rip Van Winkle. Others have similar tales, all of which end in, “Who the hell are you?”
Zinovy Zinik’s short, densely-written memoir, History Thieves, is about identity and time distortion in the lives of émigrés like himself. It begins with a German fairy tale symbolic of the stateless person’s dilemma. A boy spends a few hours with a witch then goes home to find that not only have seven years passed but he’s become a long-nosed dwarf. Like the returning émigré, his not being recognized is the “moment of the most painful rupture with humanity.” So strong is the need to be recognized that some refugees from places as horrific as North Korea will, after risking everything to leave, risk everything to go back. But like Rip or the kid who meets the witch, going back is never straightforward. Time is an unfunny joker.
The book’s title derives from a unique situation under the Brezhnev regime where Jews were allowed to leave Russia if they could show they had a relative living abroad. Soviet authorities were in no position to check closely, so many Jews, including Zinik, simply fictionalized a long-lost family member. As Zinik says elsewhere, emigration became a “literary device.” Jews forced to falsify their pasts did so for no other purpose than to find a new sense of belonging. Like Zinik, they became “history thieves.”
If it’s true, as he writes in One Way Ticket (1995), that “no one in their right mind leaves his own country unless he is forced to,” then why did Zinik leave at all, knowing that, legally, return was impossible? He never experienced anti-Semitism. He never went to synagogue or had even seen a bible. Although the gulags were full of samizdat writers like himself, there was plenty of state money to underwrite artistic projects if one was careful not to openly confront the authorities. Moscow was “the most entertaining prison in the world.” By his own account he was having a pretty good time.
In One Way Ticket he claims he left Russia forever because of “too many simultaneous love affairs” and the “unavailability of good beer and whiskey.” Seventeen years later in History Thieves the reason becomes “to experience the feeling of being an anonymous foreigner,” hardly more rational than seeking the thrill of riding a bicycle off the roof of a garage. After arriving in Israel he begins using the locals as “stage props required to maintain a necessary illusion” and ridicules the Orthodox for tying their shoelaces a certain way to speed up the Messiah’s arrival. He publishes a literary novel for a Jewish émigré audience, but all anyone sees in it is anti-Zionism and pornography. The welcome mat is pulled away.
Zinik’s memoir goes beyond mere incidents in the life of a renegade author. His project is seeking and finding what’s behind the émigré’s divided self, half pre-emigration, half post-immigration. In keeping with this theme the book itself is divided into two distinct but connected parts. One is a Bildungsroman set against a backdrop of secret histories. The other consists of footnotes at least as long as the text that delve even deeper into philosophy (Wittgenstein’s theory of dream and reality), literature (the pseudonymous Albert von Chasissas) and the paradoxes of political extremism (why the Nazis were responsible for Zinik’s birth). These divagations are every bit as fascinating as an interlude in a witch’s castle.
At the center of the book’s labyrinth is the author’s recurring dream of a mysterious house. In Berlin a turn of events brings together the house and Zinik’s grandfather (a doctor and KGB agent) in a metaphysical surprise worthy of Jorge Louis Borges. The author’s divided self miraculously unites. Recognition comes into brilliant light like a rainbow after the darkness of a storm.
To friends and family in the old country, the former Zinovy Gluzberg-Zinik may have turned into a dwarf with a big nose, but it’s the price he pays for escape and the literary life, not to mention upgraded whiskey and beer. History Thieves is a captivating fairy tale for adults, about separation and unity made possible by a willingness to live dangerously. And lie like hell.
- John-Ivan Palmer