Foreign Relations

David Bezmozgis
The Free World
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)

Though globalization and the increasing ease of travel have created a worldwide boom in immigrant narratives of cultural crossing and border-hopping, the ethnic immigrant novel is a particularly North American genre. Uniting the expression of the individual’s assimilation with the American promise of cultural accommodation, it is an emancipatory gesture and ritual, a final repetition of the tale before it becomes a foundational myth.

The Jewish and arguably, due to immigration’s historical demographics, Russian or Polish variant of the immigrant novel has constituted an integral and highly visible portion of the genre for a century. Taxonomically, it is variegated by degree of generational assimilation; epistemically, by a singular flight from old-world political terrors. The impoverished striving and grasping from asphyxiation of the 1920s Lower East Side of Anzia Yezierska, Henry Roth, and Abraham Cahan, transforms into the mid-century, post-immigrant, middle class-striving; the occasionally scabrous generation of Bernard Malamud, Grace Paley, Philip Roth. That lineage ends with Saul Bellow’s self-willed leap into cerebral and feverish aristocracy.

American Jewish activism culminated in the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which forced Soviet authorities into gradually releasing the mass of Soviet Jewry in exchange for trade deals. The resulting wave of immigrant novels is now flooding American shores. Gary Shteyngart, with his farcical pastiche, is merely the best known of the current crop of Russians writing in English, a cadre that includes Lara Vapynar, Anya Ulinich, Olga Grushin, and Yelena Akhtiorskaya. One of the strongest talents of the group is the Riga-born Canadian émigré David Bezmozgis. His debut short story collection, Natasha, has garnered critical accolades for its depth of feeling, supple sentences, and melding of Chekhovian quietude with narrative liveliness.

The Free World by David Bezmozgis, set in a relocation station in Rome in the summer of 1978, opens as “The Representatives of Soviet Jewry—from Tallinn to Tashkent—roiled, snarled, and elbowed to deposit their belongings onto the waiting train” in a train station. The Krasnansky family, along with several thousand others, awaits its immigration visas. Samuil is the family’s misanthropic patriarch, a steely Red Army commissar. The book’s most compelling character, he is a Soviet patriot leaving his country for the sake of family obligation. Karl, the elder son, is an operator with an eye for the hustle that will suit him well in the new world. The younger son, Alec, is a charismatic, newlywed playboy who floats through life in hedonic fashion. His sensible wife, Polina, has broken off relations with another man to be with Alec, and travels with his family to the new world. They spend an uneasy summer simmering within the microcosm of Soviet Jewry; in this limbo, the unfinished business and repressed sentiments of their former lives play out. Love affairs, epistolary subplots, World War II flashbacks, and shady capers involving Italian hoods ensue.

The narrative spans 50 years and takes as its locus the 1917 Revolution. Bezmozgis is very perceptive in his dissection of the Soviet mentality, its origins and textures, also the specifics of the traumas that Soviet citizens, especially Russian Jews, carry around with them. Through much of the book I suspected the freedom that the émigrés are searching for is from one another. That is, until Bezmozgis says it outright.

Many characters stand in for social types, cut outs for enabling the reader’s understanding of the Russian émigré experience. Samuil watches his newly observant grandsons “chirping away in Hebrew, turning back the clock on two decades of social progress.” An Israeli exiled in Rome, who served as a conscript in Czechoslovakia and as an officer in the Yom Kippur War, dissents from his own dissent, “I am a serial dissident. A rootless cosmopolitan, as they used to say. A ‘seeker of happiness,’ Lyova added, citing the title of the classic Birobidzhan propaganda film.” The reference to the Soviet push to settle Jews in that freezing corner of the far east on the Chinese border is symptomatic of the novel’s internal clock, which is kept up by the chime of global events: war machinations in the Middle East, state visits by Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the occasional death or ordination of a pope. Bezmozgis is a deft steward of minor details of the historical record, mostly avoiding pedantry (though there are instances of fourth-wall breaching that read blatantly as explanations of things that would be obvious to the actors) while cataloguing the petty humiliations and extant harassment visited upon the émigrés on their way out, such as the scene in which a war veteran’s medals are confiscated at the border.

The short, crisp sentences and minimalism of The Free World’s prose, the dexterous care with which every adjective is slotted into a sentence, will either entrance or leave the reader famished for richer, more pungent linguistic sustenance. With a short story-writer’s habit of dense miniaturization and understatement, Bezmozgis leaves the characters speaking in terse declaratives, lending the dialogue a glibness that did not make sense until I began to mentally translate it into Russian. Though witty and intermittently funny, the novel retains the muted pessimism of its Eastern European origins and, like many of its protagonists, holds tight to old Europe, which befits the story’s 19th century pedigree, its omniscient narration, philosophical digressions, dark undertones, and even darker ending.

Contributor

Vladislav Davidzon

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