AJ Sidransky's Forgiving Maximo Rothman reminds us that 'life is too short to make enemies of those we love,' and I connected with the novelist to learn more.
To some extent, A.J. Sidransky's debut novel, Forgiving Maximo Rothman, is a historical fiction narrative clothed in a present day murder mystery. However, this is not an entirely true characterization - as the narrative walks through father and son relationships and explores what can be gleaned from memories and from traditions.
Forgiving Maximo Rothman, available to Digital Journal readers for a special discount from publisher Berwick Court here (code: DSRXUMMW), moves through 65 years and arrives at the assessment that "life is too short to make enemies of those we love."
Lives moving in truncated time; shortened by Hitler's Europe and by the hardships of time spent in the Soviet Union; granted hope in the under-reported history of Sosua, a Jewish settlement in the Dominican Republic: These are the underpinnings that Sidransky explores, and he shared more with me on the threads that governed the novel and the writing of the novel.
KREBS: As a historical fiction work, the novel feels very personal. Was there a Maximo to forgive in your family?
SIDRANSKY: There was in fact a Maximo but for the most part the Maximo in the story is fictional. So here is the story. My maternal grandfather was one of 9 children. He had a younger brother, his next sibling, three years younger than him, who was married off in an arranged marriage to a wealthy young woman named Helen Boker. She was a triplet and the youngest of 13 children. Her father was quite rich and the dowry included real estate and a business, a hotel in a small city in Slovakia. It was definitely not a love marriage. The story of their escape from Europe pretty much mirrors the story in the book. Circumstances in the DR were a bit different. My uncle never moved to a homestead, that portion of the story is based on other settler accounts. He did however have a business there in Puerta Plata. They did lose several pregnancies there though and my aunt’s inability to bear a child to term made their loveless marriage even more difficult. He badly wanted children. He did have affairs both in the Dominican Republic and here in the US when they came here. I might add that’s not unusual for Dominican or Hungarian men.
The issue of forgiveness is a bit more complicated. The question is who needed to be forgiven. In those days there was a lot of blame to go around. The character of Maximo in the novel does a lot of things that require forgiveness. My intention was to examine the circumstances of that forgiveness. Tolya Korchenko blames his father for the deaths of his brother and mother. Rachel Rothman blames her father-in-law for her son’s autism. Maximo blames himself for the death of his unborn child, the deaths of his family in Europe, the death of his best friend, his best friend’s wife and his lover Anabela. What a burden to pass through life with. Tolya learns to forgive his father and himself through Maximo’s story and more importantly through Shalom’s forgiveness of Maximo, the juxtaposition being Rachel’s intense need to find a place to lay blame for her son’s autism. Shalom teaches Tolya acceptance and in that acceptance he finds the ability to forgive.
With respect to forgiveness there is also the issue of personal feelings of guilt and responsibility, which weigh heavily here and are in fact routed in the history of my family. As mentioned the real Maximo was my grandfather’s brother. My grandfather is the “Jack” character referred to in the novel a couple of times. The ‘weight of responsibility’ issue comes from him. My grandfather died in 1982. Four days before he died (he had stomach cancer) I was sitting with him in the living room of his apartment in Forest Hills. He was sitting quietly when suddenly he said to me, “I should have sent the money.” I asked him what he was talking about. He repeated himself. I asked him to whom he should have sent the money. He said, “to my mother and sisters.” I didn’t understand and asked him to explain. He told me how in 1942 he received a letter from them (as does Max in the book) that they had been deported to Poland and that he should send money to them but he didn’t believe the letter he thought it was a German rouse to get money from Jews in America. “Maybe if I had sent the money they would have survived,” he said next. It was a well-known fact by 1982 that in fact the Nazis had attempted to perpetrate a fraud on the American relatives of their victims by having them send letters asking for money when they arrived at the camps moments before they were gassed. My grandfather carried that guilt around for 40 years.
So in fact the story is deeply rooted in my family history but I have woven incidents together to create a cohesive story.
Lastly, the novel feels very personal because the deep affection that Maximo develops for the DR and its people and the relationship he has with Jose are rooted in my own experiences in the DR and my friendship with my best friend who is Dominican and is the model for Jose. So in fact it is a very personal work.
KREBS: What would you say was the strongest motivation behind writing this novel?
SIDRANSKY: I wanted to tell two stories which eventually turned into three. The first was the story of Sosua. While the story of Sosua is beautiful and moving I realized from the outset that in itself it couldn’t carry a whole novel. A novel set in a jungle with a bunch of Jews struggling to survive was too depressing and too much like the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.
At the same time we had moved to Washington Heights a few years earlier and I had fallen in love with the place. I wanted to share that with other people. You know I often refer to our neighborhood as “Sosua North” as it’s a neighborhood of Jews surrounded by a sea of Dominicans. At the same time there was the Russian Jewish community here, which was established in the 1980’s and I had been active as a teenager in the movement to Free Soviet Jewry. I wanted to examine the tensions between these communities. One of the observations I made to myself shortly after we moved to the area was that you had these various communities inhabiting the same physical space but yet had very little inter community contact. They lived in the same space but didn’t interact much, sort of like ships passing in the night. I thought that made an interesting counterpoint to the Sosua story.
There was also the question of who defines and how we define Jewish identity. Over the years I have encountered this issue in its many facets; here in Washington Heights with its traditional Orthodox community and its assimilated American Jews as well as the Russian Jewish immigrants many of whom are of mixed backgrounds. It’s a major area of discussion in the Jewish world today.
At the same time I was undergoing a huge personal transformation as well and wanted to explore the idea of personal identification and identity and how we see ourselves as we change.
All these things came together for me during the writing of this book. I believe much of it is reflected there.
KREBS: As a first novel this book moves ambitiously through history. How did you experience the crafting of the narrative over time? Was it difficult to cover that much time as an author in the process of writing the book?
SIDRANSKY: The time breaks actually make the novel easier to write. My first book which is still unpublished happens in a linear fashion in one time period. You have to account for action and time while not acting like a security camera on a lamp post. The movement back and forth made it easier for me to move forward in time in each story line. I didn’t have to pick up where I’d left off and didn’t have to account for the time in between. So in the Sosua story it enabled me to move ahead a year or so at a time from section to section. Same in the Russia story and in the Washington Heights story it let me move ahead by hours when I needed it without accounting for the characters actions and where abouts.
KREBS: The intolerance of the World War II era existed in Europe, Russia, and the Dominican Republic. How would Maximo fare in today's setting and what can be learned from this?
SIDRANSKY: Intolerance, sadly, remains with us in both benign and malignant forms. Just this weekend I encountered it in the casual disregard by an acquaintance of my wife. We were on our way to a Cuban Restaurant and because the Cubans and the Mexicans both speak Spanish and her main contact with Spanish speaking people is in the cleaning of her apartment she naturally assumed that 5 de Mayo was a Cuban celebration as well. When I explained to her that it was not she blew me off with a flick of her hand and the statement that to white people all those people are the same. While I am not an advocate or a fan of political correctness I also have no stomach for the casual disregard of other peoples cultures I find so many of my peers to have.
Your question is a good one, How would Maximo fare today? I would like to think that Maximo would fare well as he so easily gave himself over to the people and culture of the Dominican Republic in the 40’s. I think though that a lot of Maximo’s willingness to “become” Dominican was rooted in the unhappiness he felt in his previous life. It was not just the rejection of Jews as part of European society (see page 91 last two paragraphs) that propelled him to a new life though it was a factor. In the DR he found himself the master of his own destiny for the first time in his life. No father-in-law inspecting his books weekly. He comments many times on how different Dominican cultural norms are from the “middleuropan” world he came from and how comfortable he feels with them. The fascism that governed the DR at that time would eventually take its toll on him but not at first, not as he began to immerse himself in the Dominican way of life.
I wrote Max as a non-judgmental character, which is one of the reasons he fares well in his new environment. Being non-judgmental is sort of the key to living in an open society in my opinion. I would believe he would fare well in a multicultural setting today. In the book in the present day story line he still at 95 extends himself over cultural barriers.
What I am hoping readers will take away from this story, particularly the relationships between Max and Jose and Tolya and Pete, which were written to mirror each other is to open themselves to the idea of friendship across cultural lines. We are so much more alike than we are different. If you open yourself to others what you get back is so much more than you give. So much of what separates us is artificial. What we are really seeking is to connect on a that most basic, most human level, to have a friend who says, “Yeah I understand and I’m there if you need me.” That’s the message between Max and Jose and between Tolya and Pete. Here’s a little advance notice, that’s the theme explored in the sequel, which I hope to have done shortly.