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15 November 2018

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Stalin's Barber

By Paul Levitt (Taylor Trade, $26,95)

We begin in Albania on the eve of the Italian occupation, in 1931. Somewhere, thousands of miles away in the West, plans for a World War are being hatched; in the East, a horrific famine is being perpetrated.

And here we have Avraham Bahar, a Jewish barber (a rather gifted one) in the capital of Tirana – a soggy, dark, unpleasant sort of place; but it is home. Yet he is leaving, escaping before the Italians close Albania’s borders for good. “Thankfully,” (all things are relative) Avraham was born and raised in Kishinev, so he knows Russian and can “escape” east, where, word has it, a workers’ paradise is being built.

Soon enough, of course, Avraham, now Razeer Shtube, discovers that there is very little paradise in Russia in 1931, and to survive he must travel clear to the other side of Russia, to Birobidzhan. So begins an adventure that will take Avraham/Razeer back west again, where he lands a job fraught with all manner of complications and dangers: barber to Stalin. Or so it seems, because Stalin has several doubles, all of which need barbering.

To give any more away would lessen readers’ joy in peeling back the layers of this historical novel for themselves. Let’s just leave it that this is tale well told (no surprise the author is a playwright), full of philosophy and surreal humor, excellent characters and gripping action, to say nothing of some good history. That the protagonist is a barber offers an exceedingly intimate view of things we might previously have thought to be rather grand scale.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Mar/Apr 2013