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The Free Worldby David Bezmozgis
Synopses & Reviews
A New York Times Notable Book for 2011
A Globe and Mail Best Books of the Year 2011
Summer, 1978. Brezhnev sits like a stone in the Kremlin, Israel and Egypt are inching towards peace, and in the bustling, polyglot streets of Rome, strange new creatures have appeared: Soviet Jews who have escaped to freedom through a crack in the Iron Curtain. Among the thousands who have landed in Italy to secure visas for new lives in the West are the members of the Krasnansky family — three generations of Russian Jews.
There is Samuil, an old Communist and Red Army veteran, who reluctantly leaves the country to which he has dedicated himself body and soul; Karl, his elder son, a man eager to embrace the opportunities emigration affords; Alec, his younger son, a carefree playboy for whom life has always been a game; and Polina, Alec's new wife, who has risked the most by breaking with her old family to join this new one. Together, they will spend six months in Rome — their way station and purgatory. They will immerse themselves in the carnival of emigration, in an Italy rife with love affairs and ruthless hustles, with dislocation and nostalgia, with the promise and peril of a new life. Through the unforgettable Krasnansky family, David Bezmozgis has created an intimate portrait of a tumultuous era.
Written in precise, musical prose, The Free World is a stunning debut novel, a heartfelt multigenerational saga of great historical scope and even greater human depth. Enlarging on the themes of aspiration and exile that infused his critically acclaimed first collection, Natasha and Other Stories, The Free World establishes Bezmozgis as one of our most mature and accomplished storytellers.
"Bezmozgis follows his well-received Natasha and Other Stories with a meticulous study of the capricious spaces between historical certainties. First, there's the gap that allows the Krasnansky family to flee Soviet Latvia in the late 1970s for the edge of Rome, where a population of Jewish refugees contemplate their chances of emigrating to Canada, America, or Australia while awaiting news of Israel's peace with Egypt amid widespread anti-Zionism. Then there's the generational gap between the Krasnansky patriarch, unreconstructed Communist Samuil, who only reluctantly leaves the bloc he fought and sacrificed for, and his somewhat profligate sons, Alec and Karl, keen to snatch up the opportunities — sexual, financial, and criminal — that the West affords. And finally there is the growing distance between Alec and his wife, Polina, who is fleeing an ex-husband and a scandalous abortion. Bezmozgis displays an evenhanded verisimilitude in dealing with a wide variety of cold war attitudes, and though the unremitting seriousness of his tone makes for some slow patches, the book remains an assured, complex social novel whose relevance will be obvious to any reader genuinely curious about recent history, the limits of love, and the unexpected burdens that attend the arrival of freedom. (Apr.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
"Self-assured, elegant, and perceptive....[Bezmozgis] has created an unflinchingly honest, evenhanded and multilayered retelling of the Jewish immigrant story that steadfastly refuses to sentimentalize or malign the Old World or the New. Sholem Aleichem might well feel proud. And perhaps so too might Philip Roth and Leonard Michaels." Adam Langer, The New York Times
"Bezmozgis overturns our cliched expectations of immigrant idealism....Strikingly, he never pretends that his confused, self-interested characters are admirable, virtuous or even likable, but he respects them nonetheless. His book pays tribute to their tenacity and to their sometimes accidental courage....Bezmozgis laces even his darkest humor with pathos. While his depictions don't flatter his subjects, they honor them by conveying each person's individual history, motivations and truth." Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review
"The linked stories of David Bezmozgis's acclaimed debut collection, Natasha (2004), measured a young Latvian Jew's life spent as a foreigner in a foreign land — North America — and sketched an ever widening gulf between history and tradition and the immigrants Western experience. His perceptive and engaging first novel, The Free World, is anchored a few years earlier than Natasha, in 1978 and records the Krasnansky family's existence in transit — no longer in the Soviet Union but not yet at its final destination." Time
"David Bezmozgis's debut story collection Natasha, met with the sort of critical reception that even grandiose adolescents are too realistic to expect....More recently, The New Yorker included him on the roster every young writer dreams about: its 20 under 40 list, in June 2010. If that final accolade seemed a little much last summer — six years after the release of Bezmozgis only book-length work — his new novel, The Free World, makes it seem prescient." Slate
"What makes Bezmozgis such a joy to read is his sincerity of tone, his seemingly bottomless empathy. Irony and black humor are inevitable characteristics of prose by writers from the former Soviet Union; they are ingrained in our literature, our very worldview. As young immigrant writers, our knowledge of our community benefits from both an insiders and outsiders perspective, but the danger of this observational stance is that potential to turn on our characters, make them comical at the expense of their humanity. Bezmozgis never falls into this trap. His loyalties lie staunchly with his creations, and the absurdities he points out are deeply funny, yet filtered through a mature wisdom." The Forward
"Thought-provoking...powerfully realized, absorbing, and old-fashioned in satisfying ways." The Boston Globe
"Bezmozgis's keen sensitivity and ability to render human frailty is exquisite. In its most successful moments, The Free World not only localizes the grand drama of shifting, global ideologies but also binds the allegorical to relatable human emotions." Time Out New York
"[The Free World's] strength is in the language. Unlike the crisp, tidy prose of Natasha, written in the detached candor of the teenage narrator, the voices of The Free World speak a new Frankenstein tongue, its seams purposefully showing. Though written in English, the dialogue has the distinct rhythm and tone of Russian that has been translated, almost word-for-word, without an interpreter's laborious task of adjusting for context. As a storytelling device, it's perfect; it immerses the reader in the Krasnansky's household and, lest he forget, reminds him that the place he has entered is very Russian — not Russians among Americans, as he may be used to, or even Russians among Italians." The New York Observer
"In the past decade, a handful of writers have added compelling twists to the classic immigration novel, adding new and unexpected layers to tales of newcomers in new lands. Jeffrey Eugenides, for example, wrote about a hermaphrodite immigrant in Middlesex; in Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the protagonist had a fantastic imagination and used an unexpected language infused with Spanish and video game slang. Now comes David Bezmozgis's The Free World, an immigration novel in which the characters don't actually immigrate....Each person in the rambling Krasnansky clan is explored in detail and with keen insight, which Bezmozgis achieves with dazzling manipulations of point-of-view." Bookforum
"Bezmozgis proves why he was recently proclaimed one of the New Yorker's '20 Under 40;' this is mellifluous, utterly captivating writing, and you'll live with the Krasnansky family as if it were your own. Highly recommended." Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
"Sharply funny and fast-paced, yet splendidly saturated with intriguing psychological nuance and caustic social commentary...Bezmozgis infuses every scene with prismatic significance, covering an astonishing swath of Jewish and Soviet history, immigrant traumas, sexual drama, and family angst. A brilliantly ironic and beautifully human novel of exile and yearning." Donna Seaman, Booklist
August 1978. Brezhnev is in the Kremlin. Nuclear missiles stand primed in their Siberian silos. The Iron Curtain divides East from West. And in the muggy darkness of a train compartment, the young Krasnansky brothers — with their wives, their parents, and a pair of sleeping little kids — are crossing Italy. Italy! The destination of every Russian Jew who refused to play by the rules and go to Israel. Italy! Where all you have to do is spin the globe, choose a country (Canada? New Zealand?), and wait for the papers. Italy! For the Krasnanskys, it might as well be the moon.
Alongside thousands of other Russian immigrants, they will spend half a year in the village of Ladispoli, on the outskirts of Rome, experiencing the full range of the human circus that is Italy — love affairs, freedom, a nostalgic reliving of the Soviet past, and blind and frantic negotiations with an unknowable future. Part holiday, part exile, these six months will be — for good and ill — the greatest adventure of their lives.
About the Author
David Bezmozgis was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1973. In 1980 he immigrated with his parents to Toronto, where he lives today. Natasha, his first book, was named one of the Los Angeles Times's Best Books of 2004 and was the winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book, among other honors.
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