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Posthumously Published 'Memory's Tailor' Is A Satisfying, War-Torn Weave Of Historical Fiction, Satire And Memory.

By Randall Holdridge

APRIL 5, 1999: 

Memory's Tailor, by Lawrence Rudner (University Press of Mississippi). Cloth, $25.

COMBINE THE MAGICAL realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez with the farcical characterizations and scatological humor of A Confederacy of Dunces, and shine the resulting spotlight on the past and present plight of Jews in Russia. You get something like Memory's Tailor. Equal parts historical novel, satire, marching anthem and fairy tale, Lawrence Rudner's posthumously published novel threads patches of incident, dream, memory and discovered documents into a satisfying whole.

The narrative begins and ends in Moscow during the dramatic events of 1991, when citizens and soldiers stood behind the leadership of Boris Yeltsin to prevent the coup of Communist hard-liners against the reform government of Mikhail Gorbachev. Broadly committed to democracy and the idea that "all men must be brothers," Rudner attaches hope to these events, albeit with a warning that the degrading wanderings of Jews remain eternal. He suggests an opportunity for modest heroism in this grim prediction. Most of all, he counsels that it is futile and demoralizing for Jews to seek invisibility in secularization.

The seamed structure of the book and its events are united neatly in the central metaphor of a skilled tailor, Alexandre Davidowich Berman, who liberates memory by repairing tattered garments. Berman has seen the horrors of the Holocaust as a Red Army prisoner of the Nazis, and he is only reluctantly a Jew, an even more recalcitrant hero. In the post-war years he's achieved anonymity in being a tailor for the Kirov Ballet, where his superb craftsmanship in the service of an iconic institution of the Soviet state assures his security.

In his quiet retirement, Berman is enlisted by the bureaucrat curator of the Catherine Museum to salvage the luxurious (but long-neglected and very fragile) costumes of the Czarist court, now a valuable commodity in traveling exhibits in the museums of the capitalist West. In this job, a relationship with a charwoman and then the discovery of a small scroll sewed decades before by another Jewish tailor into the lining of an old coat awaken his conscience. When his talent is recognized, Berman is drafted to repair the deteriorating suit of the embalmed V.I. Lenin in his Kremlin mausoleum. Thus, Berman begins a quixotic odyssey to discover and repair the fragments of Jewish memory in Russian history.

The adjective "quixotic" is not chosen idly, since both squire and steed from that classic are echoed in Memory's Tailor. To assist his quest, Berman enrolls the skeptical and eminently practical glassblower Zorin, who owns a broken-down Lada sedan.

Equipped with a portable sewing machine, they set out on a rambling journey through the Soviet Union in its expiring months. Like Sancho Panza, Zorin sees the dangers but is nonetheless swept up by Berman's inspired mission, fully aware that with "no radio, no TV, no newspapers, this man knows nothing."

What Berman does know is the incomparable value of a skilled tailor among the ragtag poor, and he offers to trade garment repairs for stories as he and Zorin drive from town to town. He meets babushkas, commune dwellers, the devout and the fallen-away, old and young. Berman collects the memories of the people he meets, as well as many of their artifacts: a chipped shofar, old photos, phylacteries and the discarded garments, names and descriptions of Jews from centuries of Russian life. With these, he surreptitiously enters state museums and sets up, alongside official displays, a parallel image of people despised or forgotten.

While very old memories make up some of the book, Rudner does not neglect events of the 20th century. He considers, for instance, the irony of Stalinist pogroms in light of the Bolshevik Revolution's founding by secularized Jews like Lenin, Trotsky, Litvinov, Kamenev, Molotov and Bukharin. More ominously, the congenital anti-Semitism of Russian and Soviet history is personified by Berman's nemesis, the KGB agent Kotsov, whose dogged investigation of the tailor is his atonement for having once used the expression "good Jew" instead of "old Yid" in an official report.

The details of Memory's Tailor are deeply considered, and they range across not just history, but also Russian literature, music and architecture. Lawrence Rudner traveled and taught extensively in Eastern Europe, and was a Fulbright Fellow in Krakow for two years; it became his project to "reinvent some lost lives." He had only recently finished the manuscript for this book when he died of cancer at age 48 in 1995, and final editing has since been completed by two of his colleagues. These facts give an interesting provenance to the perspective on recent Russian history, and some of the background players--like Brezhnev, Andropov, Yeltsin and Gorbachev--central to Memory's Tailor. Whatever may be its authority as political analysis, it is vivid and amusing food for thought.

However, it may be well to keep in mind that the opinions of an American professor of Holocaust literature as to the practical implications of orthodox religious militancy, in Russia or elsewhere, come distinctly from the Diaspora in both source and subject. In Israel, religious-secular differences have increasingly murderous overtones, as exemplified most starkly in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir, and in the specter of rising domestic terrorism championed by orthodox rabbis, intellectuals, and their parties. It is hard to believe that the gentle tailor Berman, even at the end, would countenance a radicalism that would tatter, rather than repair.


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