• Review of House by the Lake

    Manus Yadushlivy, journalist

    Neue Zeiten Frankfurt am Main no. 5 (18), September 2002


    I always approach the hurriedly published books that appear one after the other in our immigrant milieu with distrust. But a friend of mine spoke so persuasively about Mikhail Berman-Tsikinovsky’s A House by the Lake that I decided to read it. And I wasn’t sorry for doing so. The author of this book is a doctor who has already lived in Chicago for a quarter of a century, and the book was published in his birthplace, Kharkov.


    Kharkov and Chicago are the two main heroes of A House by the Lake. The contents of the book – stories, poems, plays, and chapters from a novel – demonstrate the broad range of the author’s creativity.


    What do I know about Chicago and Kharkov? I remember Chicago from my school years as a large industrial city in the Midwestern America, with many skyscrapers, smoke-filled streets, and sweatshop conditions in the workplaces. Chicago was mentioned in Soviet newspapers every May Day, for this holiday had been established “in memory of the Chicago workers’ heroic campaign and struggle with the police on May 1, 1886” (Soviet Encyclopedia, 1998). It seems to me that everyone thinks of Kharkov as a big industrial, academic and cultural center in East Ukraine. From 1918 to 1934, it was the capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. In the sixties, I was fortunate enough to go on a business trip to this wonderful city.


    Reading A House by the Lake, you feel the author’s deep love for Kharkov. The city of his birth shows up several times in the dreams of characters in his stories. For example, in the eponymous story “A House by the Lake,” the hero, Benyamin Turovsky, when he is able to fall asleep, “nearly always found himself in his native Kharkov, in the springtime, when the lilacs were blooming, and always near the memorial of Taras Shevchenko by the sculptor Manizer.”


    Modern-day Chicago appears to us completely differently than the picture we had in our minds: “... just thirty years ago, in the early seventies,” we read in the same story, “downtown Chicago was so full of dust and soot, that a sparkling white shirt collar would become black in ten or fifteen minutes, and the lake water was polluted from many businesses. But in time all the industry was moved far beyond the city limits, to the west, as far as possible from the city and the lake... And after this, Chicagoans again found themselves able to stroll in the city in snow-white collars, fish returned to the lakeshores, and the water became so pure, that you could taste it and know immediately that it is not sea water but fresh water.”


    The events and fates of the heroes in the stories are often connected with medicine. There is nothing surprising in that – after all, the author is an experienced doctor. Love of people, of our immigrants, who have suffered so much, and who have found their second homeland on the welcoming shores of America, is a recurrent theme in these stories. For example, in the story “The Sexual Counterrevolution,” we read about Mark, the head of a doctor’s office, for whom “the meaning of life was that everyone around him should be happy.”


    Of course, there are also mean people and crooks around us. But the author believes that kindness, culture, music, etc. will overcome evil. In the story “Leningrad,” the hero Grigory Pochechkin, who lives in America, has written a poem about Mozart, in which he expresses his certainty that “if a need arose to send a messenger to establish good relations with creatures on a neighboring planet, humanity would have to send Mozart. ‘Listen, Mozart, don’t say anything, just play your violin for them. Play something you composed, and everything will be fine!’”


    Of the forty stories in this book, I was especially stirred by two of them: “Here Comes to Us a Winter Night...” and “Dizziness.” It seems to me that the author put his whole heart into these stories.


    A Winter Night. After raining during the day, it becomes colder, and snow falls, covering everything with its white blanket. At the proper time, the moon appears in the sky, and the long shadows of the trees can be seen in the fresh snow. Musya Belochkin, the hero of this and other stories, turns off the light in his room, and lights a little candle. He watches as the moon moves from one tree to another. Then it rises very high and soars in the empty space of the sky. Belochkin senses that winter does not want to be defeated, but its days are numbered. The whole time, the candle burns, as if human life was exhausting it. “The radio was playing Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, as if to resonate with what was happening outside. Listening to the music, Musya looked at the burning candle... The only thing left in his mind was a wish that all of this, like life in Bunin’s verse, would last forever, only not in a dream, but in reality...”


    The story is a page and a half long. I don’t know about other readers, but it produced an extraordinary feeling in me, as if the author was looking into the depths of my heart.


    The story “Dizziness” transports us to our birthplace of Ukraine, and concerns the fate of the academic Hermann Iosifovich Fuks. He has worked in his institute for twenty-nine years, and now, as he enters old age, they try to throw him away like garbage. He is forced into a half-starving existence. At the market, buying a tomato, he haggles for a long time with a saleswoman in order to lower the price by ten kopecks. At home, he sleeps in the kitchen, so that he doesn’t freeze to death at night. And his head constantly spins, from this hunger and from stress. I had the impression that I was reading Chekhov’s “Ward Six.”


    In reflecting our present, as though in a mirror, Berman-Tsikinovsky cannot avoid dealing with an evil of society like anti-Semitism. In the story “Die, Salieri!” he brings up this question in his own unique way. A teacher, Gita Lvovna, proves to Musya Belochkin that Chekhov was an anti-Semite. She brings forth three arguments: Chekhov presents Jews in an unattractive manner in his stories, he maintained a friendship with the anti-Semite Suvorin, and he quarreled with Levitan, not letting his sister marry him.


    Belochkin refutes all of these arguments. Chekhov was in the right in his relations with Levitan, since Levitan did not behave in a worthy manner. Similarly in the case of Suvorin, Belochkin recalls that Chekhov supported Emile Zola’s defense of the French General Staff officer Dreyfus, a Jew who was falsely accused of spying for the Germans, and sentenced to death. After Suvorin’s anti-Semitic remarks, Chekhov to all intents and purposes broke off their relations.


    As he studies various documents about Chekhov, Belochkin decides to write a play about him, transferring Chekhov’s thought into present-day immigrant life in Chicago, on Devon Avenue, a distinctive community like Brighton Beach. And Belochkin, or really Berman-Tsikinovsky, writes a mystery play in four acts entitled “Chekhov on Devon.” As everybody knows, Chekhov was a doctor. In this play he has a Chicago doctor’s office, and one of his patients turns out to be Ivan Alekseevich Bunin. Chekhov and Bunin become the embodiment of age-old values of literature and culture, linking history with the present.


    The play “Chekhov on Devon” excited a great deal of interest in our former homeland and among Russian immigrants in other countries. The book includes an advertisement announcing that Berman-Tsikinovsky’s play will be performed by the St. Petersburg theater “The Commandants” in Paris, in the Russian Conservatory in the name of Sergei Rachmaninov.


    There is another advertisement as well. We read that Berman-Tsikinovsky’s lyrical comedy “Paradoxes of Sredizemnomorsky” will be performed on March 14, 2000 at the Kharkov Philharmonic Society. The author tell us humorously about what people in the Brezhnev era had to go through, having decided to leave the “Evil Empire” and thus becoming “refuseniks.”


    Reading the chapters from the novel Borrowed from Time, I felt as if the author was writing about my own family, which had suffered so much during the period of evacuation and after their return back home. We had also been evacuated to Central Asia. In the fall of 1944, we returned to our shtetl Bazaly, a tiny place amidst the villages and forests of Podolya. But we discovered with horror that in place of the shtetl were ruins. All the Jews had been destroyed. Not a trace remained of our house. And when I read in this novel how the author’s uncle, an officer, brought soldiers with machine guns with him when he went to get his apartment back, I recalled how much we had had to go through.


    Our family spent the night in a small town with a neighbor who had considered my mother her best friend. But she told her that tomorrow we would have to clear out. Where could we go? My mother went to the Regional Evacuation Committee Head, and asked for help finding housing. After all, we were born and had lived here, and her older son and daughter were at the front. The Regional Evacuation Committee Head Shevchenko answered: “Why did you come here? Who needs you? We don’t have an apartment for you” although there were still a few Jewish houses in the town, in which peasants who had their own houses in villages were living.


    We thought that there were only mean, unfeeling people here. It turned out to be that way wherever evacuated people returned. These were sparks of the same government anti-Semitism that in the years right after the war blazed into a big anti-Semitic fire in which the Soviet Jewry was nearly destroyed.


    The value of this novel, in my opinion, is that the author recalls the remarkable people who were living at this time. He returns again and again to the events connected with the so-called “Doctor’s Plot.”


    Reading the last page of the book A House by the Lake, I felt as though I had met a true friend, and that I would remember this meeting for a long time. It was with a kind doctor and talented writer. May God grant him great health and strength for his service of humanity!