Sunday, July 3, 2011

Based on a True Story by Hesh Kestin

The three novellas that make up Based on a True Story are set in Africa, Polynesia and Hollywood on the eve of WWII. Kestin, a former foreign correspondent has written some of the best short fiction that this reviewer has seen involving contemporary life in a world at war. Some of his tales explore the themes of racial and gender identity. Of recent, his work has been compared to the likes of Steve Stern and Philip Roth respectively. His resume includes reporting on local wars, global business, and exotic mayhem in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa for publications such as Forbes, Newsday, and The Jerusalem Post, and US magazines as diverse as Playboy and Inc. He has also been cited by Media Guide for best foreign correspondence, and his work has won many awards.

For this reader the time period of the 30's and 40's is what kept my interest. He tells each story from three very different perspectives: post-war occupation in the middle east, a Stalin-era Russian in the South Pacific, and a Hollywood studio in the segregated 30's that specializes in Negro cinema.

For starters, in the opening lines of "The Merchant of Mombasa" we are transported between a Hindu crematorium and an infectious disease hospital. What an odd setting, but one that pulled me in from the start. Needless to say, one of the most compelling lines in this collection of novellas is the closing line in "The Man Who Kissed Stalin's Wife". For At Peace I had seen no life amid my native snows, and for me none at all in paradise. However, I was even more entranced by all the name dropping in "Based on a True Story", the last novella in the collection. From Gone With the Wind to Dale Carnegie, I was transported to a much simpler time and place. If you are looking for a sampling of historical fiction and nostalgia, then this book is right up your alley.

Based on a True Story


That night was an introduction for me to a passion I had never considered to exist. Like others of my age, I had been indoctrinated in a sexual, as well as a political, dogma. Moscow and Leningrad women, even in the highest circles in which I traveled, were hardly sensual creatures at all. Softness in a woman had become counter-revolutionary two decades before, and our poverty was dire. But the Atu-Hivans were poorer than we. Here beauty was not accident, but practice—as moderation might be, or political vigilance. Only once before had it occurred to me that a woman might have sexual feelings other than those attendant in the simple bartering of her soul. Now the romantico-socialist babblings we had practiced upon the objects of our desire became suddenly as inexplicable as some foolish and exhausted tradition. In reality, this was the case. In matters of love the ancien regime lived on, endlessly modified by the political truth of the day. In that Russia under Stalin, the Russia I had fled to arrive in a paradise of endless sensuality, only one woman had embodied for me the highest ideal of what a woman—as woman—might be, and I had met her only twice, both times at official functions. She was not the soft odalisque of Atu-Hiva, but she was real, and it disturbed me that it was she I thought of while I made love to and was made love to by At Peace. Her name was Nadezhda Alleluyeva, and she had had the bad fortune to have married the wrong man. She was Stalin’s wife.