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Monday, July 11th, 2011
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The Free World

by David Bezmozgis

More About the Russian Swarm

A review by Tori Schacht

If novels could choose their resting places, David Bezmozgis's debut novel, The Free World, would sit most comfortably on a well-hewn shelf of 19th-century Russian fiction, rather than with the New Yorker's "20 Under 40" where Bezmozgis was enthroned last year. An austere but soulful work that privileges psychological depth over fancy narrative trickery and conciseness over postmodern verbal hijinks, The Free World is easy to dismiss as naive. A straightforward, old-fashioned realist novel in 2011?

Naive or not, he's done it. The novel revolves around the personal and collective dramas of the Krasnanskys: a Jewish family living in socialist Riga who, in 1978, leave the Soviet Union on a special program granting asylum to Jews. Before reaching their destination, the Krasnanskys encounter visa difficulties and spend five months in Rome, a common stopover for Soviet refugees. The novel begins and ends here.

Bezmozgis doesn't stray too far from home -- in his fiction, at least. Born in Riga in 1973, the author and his family immigrated to Toronto in 1980. Both The Free World and Bezmozgis's earlier short story collection, Natasha (FSG, 2004) -- about another emigre family settled in Toronto -- are hymns to the dislocation, comic bewilderment, and stoicism of his compatriots. Natasha was a damned perfect debut. A representative passage:

Goldfinch was flapping clotheslines, a tenement delirious with striving. 6030 Bathhurst: insomniac scheming Odessa. Cedarcroft: reeking borscht in the hallways. My parents, Baltic aristocrats, took an apartment at 715 Finch fronting a ravine and across from an elementary school -- one respectable block away from the Russian swarm.
Terse and honest, brazen but compassionate, Natasha announced the arrival of a 21st-century Bellow from the Carver school of brevity. How many writers can begin a story with "When I was sixteen I was high most of the time" and imbue it with something approaching genius?

The Free World, though the more recently published work, acts as a sort of precursor to Natasha. It's 1978, and the city of Rome has become the mother of all immigration offices. The Krasnansky family and thousands of other Soviet Jews who have recently escaped the Iron Curtain find themselves dumped here in the airless summer, ushered around by Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) employees, living one family to every room in decrepit pensioni where the building electricity is usually shorted out by dusk. Hostilities brew.

Samuil, the Krasnansky patriarch and a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, despises his sons and their capitalist ambitions for forcing him to abandon the Revolution and his nice car and driver back in Latvia. Alec, the younger son, is eager to exploit the economic opportunities Rome presents but happier still to romp around with zaftig Russian nymphs while his new wife, Polina, wielding her dour Soviet upbringing like an axe, keeps the house tidy and exchanges letters with her sister using a complex system of pseudonyms (old habits die hard). Alec's brother Karl conducts shady business deals while his wife and mother become newly ardent believers, cooking the proverbial kosher chicken for the community rabbi.

By the novel's end, the Krasnanskys haven't even left Rome; movement in The Free World is largely metaphysical. Samuil, morose and nearly suicidal, constantly reflects on the state of the Union, on the questionable ethics of his Party activities, and on the nature of life and death. Watching a family of Russians on the beach, he ponders, "Substitute the color of the sand, and these children, this same grandmother, could have been in Jurmala or Yalta.... One beach, one seashore, was as good as any other.... What did it matter to them where they were? How were they different from the birds who landed in one place or another, unmoored by allegiances or souls?"

Meanwhile, Polina ruminates on her failed marriage to Maxim -- a man without a trace of sensuality -- and revisits the pain, loss, and unendurable boredom that characterized her Soviet life. Alec, on the other hand, thinks mostly about sex -- first encounters, wild affairs, beautiful strangers. After he watches his first pornographic film in Rome, "Alec grasped the full extent of Soviet deprivation. If Russian men were surly, belligerent alcoholics it was because, in place of natural, healthy forms of relaxation, they were given newspaper accounts of hero-worker dairy maids receiving medals for milk production."

While the lyrical precision of The Free World's language is worthy of marvel, Bezmozgis's vise-like grip on the narrative nearly strangles it at times, causing an otherwise beautiful novel to devolve with predictability. Round characters (Alec, Polina, Samuil) experience transcendence, while flat characters (Karl, Emma, Rosa) move around on Bezmozgis's stage like extras, droning on incomprehensibly. But don't misunderstand -- The Free World is a poignant sociological exploration, and deserves a place of honor in the canon of Jewish emigration literature. We're lucky indeed that Bezmozgis has captured this particular historical moment in its psychogeographic specificity and ideological turmoil.


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