What if the official record were neither the conquerors’ version of the past nor the victims’, but a more scrabbled terrain in which its heroes were unwitting bystanders, history’s hapless schlemiels? In The Unamericans, Molly Antopol challenges her readers’ willingness to simplify bygone times and read into them easy moral rights and wrongs. Characters’ idealized pasts in distant lands butt up against the mundaneness and dissatisfaction of the actual. No one is a hero, no one is a victim. History is the varnished and unreal counterpart to the real, its romance a contradiction that the younger generation must reconcile.
Many of Antopol’s characters naively believe themselves heirs to a glorious legacy. In “The Quietest Man,” Tomás Novak, an immigrant professor who escaped his homeland after abduction and interrogation by the Communist StB in Cold War–era Prague, is told by his daughter, “They starved you… you could have died.” Novak confesses to the reader, “I decided not to mention the beef and gravy they fed me every day of the interrogation.” The fallibility of the record is underscored when Tomás then decides to rewrite the story of his activities as a member of a Czech anti–Communist cell by telling his daughter that their meetings took place while she rocked in her cradle on a nearby tabletop. In fact he neglected his family to carry out his political subterfuge, and continued to neglect them once they escaped to America. He became a minor celebrity in the eyes of his university colleagues in Maine for his stamina under fire during imprisonment—”the quietest man,” they called him, because he never named names. And yet Tomás knows that he has failed what is dearest to him.
In “The Unknown Soldier,” Alexi Liebman, sent to jail after a performance in the McCarthy trials, is perhaps not a valorous leader but someone who chose expedient methods to survive or even prosper. In fact he only testified at the trials because of an opportunistic allegiance to Communism, having joined up with a claque of credulous leftists in order to forward his career as an actor. Alexi, like Tomás, is a well-intentioned fraud, a passerby upon whom circumstance has bestowed fame and respect. The reader feels sympathy for these poor, conflicted impostors. Maybe they’re too hard on themselves, too brooding. These characters sell themselves short, and that is in part their charm.
In “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story,” Raya tells her granddaughter how fate thrust her into a sewage tunnel out of the Warsaw Ghetto at the height of World War II, her parents nudging her toward an escape that surely forestalled her perishing at Auschwitz. Raya finds herself wandering blindly in the Belarusian forest only to be discovered by members of the Yiddish Underground. She becomes a member, and the ringleader’s lover, and she carries out a courageous act of sabotage after training in weaponry and combat. Her action results in the derailing of a German munitions train and the deaths of sixty-four German soldiers. Yet what Raya remembers most about the incident—and feels most fit to narrate in detail—is a moment of foundering, when she, armed and dangerous, demanded food from a starving family in a rural cottage on the path to the munitions intercept. She asks her granddaughter, “Why don’t you go outside in the sun and enjoy yourself for once, rather than sitting inside, scratching at ugly things that have nothing to do with you?” Raya closes her tale by refusing to reveal the details of the sabotage. “You can go to the library and read about the sixty-four soldiers killed that night in Horodetz….”
Such stories will satisfy in the reader not only a hunger for meaning. The Unamericans is graced with an unpretentious prose style and plainspoken humor and insight, whether uttered by a young woman pursuing a relationship with an older man and his daughter in present day Tel Aviv or by the jealous brother of a soldier wounded at Hebron. The stories are linked loosely by the theme of irreligious Jewish life from World War II to the present, and so inevitably recall Nathan Englander’s wry undercutting of Jewish stereotypes and the Yiddish-inflected cadences of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Antopol has an ear for the kind of off-diction that can set a character in a certain time and place and round him out better than any physical detail.
Her bon mots also amuse. “[T]he big things in life never live up,” says Howard Siegel in “The Old World.” That “live up,” bereft of its “to,” tells the reader everything about Siegel’s Yiddish childhood in New York. Howard’s fiancée Sveta, from Kiev, reveals her own cultural and emotional predilections when she asks him, “How do you say it here? Shit it happens.” The word malarkey comes up twice in the book, once in Howard Siegel’s narration (that “orthodox malarkey”) and again in the words of a Communist organizer displaced from the Bronx to Cold War–era Los Angeles, when he scoffs at his daughter’s public-school air raid drills in the story “Duck and Cover.” In each instance, the Irish-Americanism seems folded into the characters’ speech as if to underscore, with a kind of bemused irony, a precarious living between worlds. Howard Siegel has remained a denizen provincial Brooklyn long beyond a time it was a city of Irish and Italians and Jews. His lifelong goal has been to discard his Jewish–American past, and yet in his circle, everyone seems “to be regressing, Beth returning to the Brooklyn shtetl I’d abandoned…. And now me, vacationing in Kiev.”
There is an echo of the Eastern European in such moments of subtle and dry wit. Antopol’s characters carry a burdened, matter-of-fact melancholy, an Old World pessimism lightened by their understanding that the worst will surely come. One must retain one’s sense of humor as calamity rains down. “His dark, droopy eyes gave him an air of mystery and exhaustion,” says the narrator of Alexi Liebman, a man who had “never explicitly lied about anything. He just never told the complete truth.” There is a mordant simplicity to these characters’ foibles, which are never judged by the author or even particularly mourned by the characters themselves.
With her worldly themes and her interest in ordinary amid extraordinary times, Antopol seems to be pushing the bounds of the contemporary American short story. By moving from suburban realism toward a broader American worldview, she seems to probe for a sense of understanding and completion about complex international realities more weighty than the provincial American divorce. This is what makes Antopol’s collection necessary, in culture and in literature, despite its strong resemblance to Englander, Singer, and her many forebears. The Unamericans is a vital text for us today.