A biographer becomes obsessed with tracking down his subject, Solomon Gursky, who is supposedly dead. “Solomon Gursky was here” is the story of three generations of a Jewish family in Canada, through the eyes of the aspiring biographer of one significant member of the family. Moses Berger is an alcoholic writer who has become obsessed with the life and fate of the mysterious Solomon Gursky. He traces the history of the family in hopes of understanding his subject better, and travels the world to try and find Solomon.
The Gursky family came to Canada during the Victorian period when Ephraim Gursky, a petty criminal in England, is expelled when he is prosecuted for the crime of adultery. He chooses to leave the country as part of Franklin's doomed expedition to the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage. Ephraim manages to survive the journey, and becomes a mythical leader of the Inuit. He fathers twenty seven children, and continues to thrive in Canada. There, his three grandsons from his son Aaron (Solomon, Bernard and Morrie) learn the family art of trickery from Ephraim. He takes a special interest in Solomon, seeing that they share qualities of charisma and intelligence, and takes him on a trip far north into the tundra, to ensure that he can pass along some significant life lessons to him. The brothers begin working in their family Dry Goods store on the prairies, but Solomon dreams of more, so he steals cash from the store and gambles it in a poker game. His winnings include several plots of land and buildings, and the Gursky empire begins. Bernard becomes heavily involved in the day to day management of the business, while Solomon continues to seek out new and interesting experiences. Solomon leads the family into bootlegging in Quebec, which makes them even wealthier. However, when bootlegging charges are made, Solomon is betrayed by his brothers to save themselves and the business. Shortly afterward, he dies mysteriously in a plane crash that could be linked to Bernard.
When prohibition ends, Bernard shifts the business into a legitimate liquor business, and the empire balloons. However, the shadow of Solomon looms large, and there are whispers of sightings and further adventures. Moses immerses himself in the task of tracking down all of these stories, trying to catch up with Solomon. He never does. However, what he does accomplish through his journey is a compilation of one family's whimsical immigration experience, paired with an overview of Canada's historical growth.
Best part of story, including ending:
I loved the humour in the story. There is a very Canadian quality to the self effacing humour that the narrator and the characters reflect.
Best scene in story:
I loved the scene when Ephraim meets the indigenous people of the Arctic, and convinces them that he is a mythical being, mostly so that he could sleep with their women.
Opinion about the main character:
I found Moses' obsession with Solomon to be grating towards the end of the novel. He was completely unwilling to see how broken his own life was, and chasing Solomon gave him something else to focus on.