The Free World
Harper Collins, 2011
Hardcover, 354 pages
Toronto author David Bezmozgis’ biography and bibliography have a very contemporary Canadian ring to them. Born in Riga, Latvia, in 1973, he came to Toronto with his parents in 1980. He completed his BA in English Literature at McGill, followed by an MA (cinema, television) at the University of Southern California. His work first gained significant recognition in the States with publications in The New Yorker and Harpers, and stories included in The Best American Short Stories anthologies of 2005 and 2006. In 2010 he was identified by the The New Yorker as one of the twenty most promising writers under the age of forty. His first film feature, Victoria Day, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009 and received a Genie Award nomination for best screen play. While it is true that this sort of pan-North American career path and exposure can blur one’s perception of a writer as a Canadian writer, in fact it is a very Canadian artistic experience, as true in Mordecai Richler’s day as it is today. Both Bezmozgis’ first book of short stories, Natasha and Other Stories (which brought him widespread critical acclaim) and The Free World, his follow-up effort, and first novel, (nominated for both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for 2011) draw on his own quintessentially modern Canadian experience of immigration.
The Free World takes place in the near past — 1978 — and chronicles the adventures of the Krasnanskys, a family of Russian Jews, at a critical moment in their history. The family, a three-generational collective, has decided to take advantage of a minor loophole in Soviet emigration policy (extended initially, to Russian Jews, in favour of family reunification in Israel) to relocate to the West. Although, because of family connections, they had originally hoped to end up in Chicago, various complications dictate that Canada will eventually become their new home. Their odyssey, which began in their hometown of Riga, Latvia, takes them first to Vienna, and then to Rome, the point of departure to the West. The story unfolds over the five months prior to their arrival in Canada, during which the family’s destiny hangs in limbo, ensnared in bureaucracy, temporarily suspended between the old and the new.
The Krasnaskys are a diverse and garrulous ensemble and Bezmozgis’ skill in characterization makes the most of the comic possibilities inherent in their situation. While many deep cultural losses accompany a loss of place, it seems that sibling rivalries, intergenerational irritations, and personality conflicts travel anywhere with a family. Forced by the necessities of their situation into closer interaction than might otherwise be advisable, much bickering, needling, and exasperation ensues, as timeless and universal family issues are played out in a uniquely Krasnaskian way. As one character in the novel sagely notes, “It’s difficult to travel with a large Jewish family (…) Too many opinions.”
The author is deft in his depiction of the particular ways in which family members drive each other crazy. Emma, quiet but wise (if somewhat unworldly) has her hands full with her cranky husband Samuil and fractious children. Of Emma and Samuil’s two sons, Karl is the pragmatic “doer,”a stocky, competent man of endless energy, who instinctively understands how to exploit the quasi lawlessness and unpredictable social structures of the temporary immigrant community. Alec, his exasperating younger brother, is the perpetually charming, handsome dreamer, a serial romantic whose inability to parse life’s practical realities repeatedly lands him in (sometimes serious) difficulty and proves a source of despair for his new wife Polina. Rather counterintuitively, it is Karl who provides the story with one of it’s funniest moments. Rationalizing his behaviour on the basis of his recent treatment by his imperious wife Rosa, Karl has indulged in a daliance with an Italian policewoman and is inadvertently discovered by his mother-in-law. Unable to interpret the scene before her eyes, deeper fears flood the vacuum of her understanding. “Oh my god” she mutters, (unintentionally precise in her diction,) “He’s gotten himself involved with the police.” Although the scene, as Bezmozgis presents it, is hilarious, it is not just hilarious. Also illuminated are the habits of thought ingrained by a lifetime under Soviet rule, and the dynamics behind the sense of vindication lurking in the remark.
Various bit characters add to the fun and the complexity of the story. A favourite example is Lyova (aka Luigi, aka Arieh) Alec and Polina’s temporary landlord in Rome, a wry and insuppressible character whose “features were a series of conflicting planes: sharp, skeletal cheekbones; his nose a high, thin ridge; an Adam’s apples that was like a second nose in his neck.” Lyova’s particular problem revolves around the fact that he had first emigrated to Israel, was, therefore, no longer technically considered a refugee, and hence was not eligible for other immigration opportunities. As he explains,
I haven’t yet given up on the idea that I’m a free man in the free world. I lived in Israel. I worked. I paid taxes. I served in the army. I repaid my debt. Now I’d like to try somewhere else. Why not?
While he waits, interminably (it’s been fifteen months so far) for his situation to be clarified, he consoles himself by protesting with a sign that reads,
Israel. Let your people go.
Bezmozgis is funny — sometimes thigh-slappingly, laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes sharply ironic, but, again, he is never just funny — Lyova has his own complex and compelling history and respect for the human drama is never sacrificed for the laugh.
Contained within the Krasnasky family unit, in varying degrees of shifting equilibrium, are many of the emotional conflicts inherent in the process of emigration. The need of the younger generation (brothers Karl and Alec, and their wives Rosa and Polina, respectively) for hope and opportunity is offset by the pain of irrevocable loss of connection, community and place, the dissolution of blood ties, and, for the patriarch Samuil, the abandonment of cherished ideals for which much has been sacrificed. Tensions arise when circumstances force the examination of allegiances, with Karl’s wife Rosa an ardent, if somewhat strident, advocate for the state of Israel’s claim on the family’s loyalties. Her enthusiasm is naturally at odds with Samuil’s Communist ideals. The two brothers, aware of the brewing tensions between that new country and its neighbours, and eyeing Israel’s mandatory military service with something less than enthusiasm, are more inclined towards the West.
Although, The Free World presents, on its surface, a comedy, it is, at its heart, a tragedy, embodied in the person of Samuil. Samuil first appears as a rather stock character — the irascible, elder patriarch — grumpy, critical, inflexible, master of the cutting remark, and possibly cruel — a member of the old Communist guard and decorated veteran of the Red Army, unwilling to relinquish the power invested in him by the system and least able to adapt to his new circumstances –an obstacle for the younger generation to overcome in their flight to freedom, a caricature of the western view of the Soviet system. But, under Bezmozgis’ skilled guidance, the reader slowly comes to comprehend that the real situation is, of course, far more complex, and Samuil’s anger comes from anguish — the anguish of a man of integrity who has made unthinkable sacrifices in the name of an ideal which ultimately failed him. He is a man doomed to live, unhappily, in the ever-after, beyond the “enchanted moment,” — past the golden instant in the story where all is right with the world and effort comes to fruition, when “the clouds part and the golden light streams in,” and, where any self-respecting fairytale (or ideological narrative) ends.
A growing familiarity with Samuil’s history throws his disgust with his daughter-in-law Rosa’s Zionism into a subtler light, and allows appreciation of the effort it took for him to endure her enthusiastic accounts of his grandchildren’s indoctrination into the Jewish faith. Bezmozgis, in his elegant and economical prose, crystallizes this immensely complicated emotional conflict into a single image as Alec, ruminating jealously over the fact that Emma and Samuil seem to prefer to spend more time with his brother Karl’s family, imagines
his father, at his most saturnine, his eyes like mineshafts, enduring the Hebrew singing of his grandchildren.
It is in the character of Samuil that Bezmozgis also examines the question which percolates, radioactive with danger, throughout the story: how much of one’s identity and personal integrity can be sacrificed in the name of adaptability, and new opportunities?This conflict is illuminated in a conversation between Samuil and Josef Roidman, a fellow Red Army alumus, and refugee, who lost a leg on the Ukrainian Front, and whose invalid status is complicating his ability to emigrate to Canada. When Roidman, who has struck up an acquaintance with Samuil in Rome, suggests that Samuil lie about his membership in the Communist Party to facilitate the family’s initial efforts to get to America, the following exchange occurs:
Samuil: My hand would turn to stone before I wrote such a thing.
Josef: Yes, I understand, (…) it’s a problem. But the Americans regard Communists the way the Canadians regard invalids.
Josef: Samuil Leyzerovich, these are not your memoirs. In one’s memoirs — which are, so to speak, between one’s self and one’s soul — one must be truthful, but not, I would suspect, on an immigration form that is only between one’s self and the American immigration service.
Samuil: It is not a question of where one writes it. Apostacy is apostacy. It is always between one’s self and one’s soul.
In the end I will only add, enigmatically, that Samuil’s situation illuminates, most poignantly, that access to the “free world” is anything but free, and that, if his story is the heart of this novel, it is also within his heart that both the family’s dilemma, and its salvation reside.
Reading The Free World, was, for me, an exciting experience — an occasion upon which to add a writer to my list of those whose work I follow avidly and whose new publications I look forward to with great anticipation. Quite simply, Bezmozgis’ writing is beautiful — precise, elegant, finely detailed and fluid, a vindication of the power of language to communicate experience. In a thoughtful and revealing essay written in tribute to Leonard Michaels, a writer whose work Bezmozgis found inspirational, he mentions his reverence for “the simplicity and complexity,” of Michael’s language, and his wish to strive for similar effect in his own writing. In The Free World, I would say that Bezmozgist has achieved this goal. Consider, for example, his rendering of Alec’s sensations, as he recuperates after being severely beaten by members of the community’s underworld:
The left side of his face ached. The ache had dimension and shape and it extended beyond the familiar plane of his face.
Anyone who has, themselves, suffered the physical pain of severe bruising will instantly recognize the precision in these lines. Bezmozgis is, however, equally masterful in his depiction of emotional pain and, in the following example, the peculiar yearning at the core of bereavement. Here, Alec is reconsidering his relationship with his father in the wake of his funeral, tormenting himself with the inevitable questions.
Could he have made more of an effort? Had he been guilty of making a conveniently low assessment of his filial debt? How great was his portion of the blame? But he knew that these questions were irrelevant and had nothing to do with what he actually wanted which seemed like a very small and humble thing. And what was it? Merely to sit in the same room with his father once more. Exchanging not a word. Only to gaze at him, at his face and at his hands, to perceive him again in the realm of the living, and to inhabit that feeling as long as he could.
Those of us who have experienced bereavement are left with little doubt that Bezmozgis has too, and those of you who have not are all the better prepared for having read this passage.
It seems to me an extraordinarily positive thing for Canadian literature that a new writer of such depth, precision, sophistication and compassion has opted to focus his formidable story-telling prowess on the immigrant experience. Surely it is one of the fundamental elements of our collective Canadian psyche, and its exploration, elucidation and collective integration essential to our self-knowledge and sense of identity.
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