The Free World, by David Bezmozgis

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Author David Bezmozgis introduces us to the eight members of the Krasnansky family on the platform of Vienna’s Western Terminal. It is the summer of 1978 and they are part of the diaspora of Russian Jews who are fleeing (or being evicted) from the Soviet Union. Samuil, the partriarch, has already had his WWII medals seized (“they are the property of the state”) as part of a humiliating experience (including body cavity searches) at the Soviet border. The family has spent their first few days in the Free World wandering in awe around Vienna and are now headed to Rome, another transit point where they will spend months, perhaps even years, before getting documentation to leave again for a final, not-yet-chosen destination — Chicago is their first choice because of a relative already living there, but Canada and Australia are also possibilites.

In the confusion on the platform, Samuil and his wife, Emma, tend to the two grandchildren while the sons, Karl and Alec, and their wives, Rosa and Polina, load luggage — a life’s remaining possessions and the meal ticket to the future, actually — into the train compartment. Alec is idly attracted to a couple of young American girls also waiting on the platform (an early indication of his overwhelming weakness) but his brother calls him to order:

Alec bent into the remaining pile of suitcases and duffel bags on the platform. Each seemed heavier than the last. For six adults they had twenty articles of luggage crammed with goods destined for the bazaars of Rome: linens, toys, samovars, ballet shoes, nesting dolls, leather Latvian handicrafts, nylon stockings, lacquer boxes, pocket-knives, camera equipment, picture books, and opera glasses. One particularly heavy suitcase held Alec’s big commercial investment, dozens of symphonic records.

It used to be called the New World, but in Cold War times it is the Free World. Life in Riga holds no possibilities so, at the urging of the sons, mainly Karl, a new life will be sought. Israel is one, easier option (flights leave from Vienna, no documentation or pre-approval required), but the family is not religious and yields to Karl’s urging of settling in surroundings more conducive to his (questionable) entrepreneurial nature.

Bezmozgis entwines three time threads in his narrative — memories (both bad and good) of a Latvian and Soviet past, getting by for the present for who knows how long in Rome, and looking forward (perhaps) to an uncertain future wherever they may end up (if you are going to Canada, don’t say you want to go to Toronto, they are helpfully advised by an emigrant support worker). He frames these stories principally from the very different views of past, present and future held by Samuil and Alec.

Samuil is a reluctant and very grumpy emigrant who still remembers with pride the early days of post-Tsarist Russia and fighting the Nazis. After the war, he had a good managerial career, including a chauffeur-driven limo, but recently has been denounced. His Party membership would likely be revoked, sending him jobless into Riga’s streets, so accompanying his sons seems the only choice. A few weeks after arriving in Rome, returning to the decrepit family cottage after talking with a friend about the Party Stories (denouncing the horrors of the Soviet state) that Western authorities expect from those in the diaspora, Samuil has his own conflicting set of memories:

It disturbed Samuil to think of the dozens, the hundreds if not thousands of Party Stories being written by traitors and prevaricators to please the Americans. Samuil envisioned the dossier the American diplomats were compiling, full of false testimonies. In the end, it would lead to a gross distortion of the historical record. Samuil recalled life before the Communists and life after the Communists. He remembered the excesses of the bourgeoisie and the abject existence of the proletariat. He remembered hunger, cold, filth, penury and, worst of all, the smothered hopes of gifted, honest proletarian youth. No one who had not experienced these things could legitimately judge the Communist state. Of course, he acknowledged that, at times, mistakes had been made, that opportunistic elements had wormed their way into positions of power, but the system could not be judged on the basis of rogues and impostors. Rogues and impostors could not be allowed to qualify the essential Communist picture. In order to see this picture, a person would need to take up residence inside Samuil’s head, where the real events of proletarian struggle and triumph were housed like a breathing archive.

If Samuil’s memories have qualifications, Alec’s represent a different kind of “smothered hope”. His introspection occurs as he is being shown around the HIAS offices that support the newly-arrived and waiting emigrants. His English has qualified him for a job and the manager is trying to figure out just what it should be. Alec’s thoughts are sparked by a conversation initiated by his boss after the two look in on the transportation department (they supervise the loading of furniture and goods once a family has a destination to go to — you don’t want furniture arriving in Melbourne when the family is landing in New York):

– You do not seem to be an imposing man, Matilda said.

– Imposing? Alec asked, not understanding.

– A man to give orders to other men, Matilda said. No, they would eat you alive on the docks.

As neither the docks nor the musty office held any appeal for him, Alec saw no reason to contest Matilda’s perception of him. Besides, she was essentially right. His father was imposing and enjoyed issuing decrees and orders. Karl had this capacity as well, although he didn’t derive the kind of pleasure from it that their father did. Whereas the only thing Alec detested more than being ordered around was having to order someone else around. Basically, he was of the opinion that the world would be a far more interesting and hospitable place if everyone — genius and idiot alike — was allowed to bumble along as he pleased. “More freedom to bumble” neatly described his motive for leaving the Soviet Union.

Alec has actually “bumbled” his way into his current circumstances, in the form of his marriage to Polina. They worked together at a Riga factory, had an affair and the married Polina got pregnant. The story of how these two happened to marry and emigrate is heart-breaking in its own right. Bezmozgis mades the New Yorker’s “20 under 40″ list last summer and if you happen to be a subscriber to the magazine, an excerpt from the novel (actually pulled from several parts of the novel) recounts much of this thread — link is here, but available only to subscribers, alas.

The supporting cast in this exceptional novel is fully as good as the central characters. Karl, the shady entrepreneur, falls in with a gang of even more amoral characters (all forced diasporas involve getting rid of as many criminal types as possible) who are studies in the universality of crime in both Communist and capitalist systems. Polina conducts a correspondence with her younger sister who will face her own dislocation decision. Alec and Polina’s landlord, Lyova, would be worth a book himself — he fled the Soviet Union for Israel and lived there for five years before leaving again (his wife, child and parents are still there) with the hope of getting a U.S. visa. He found there wasn’t much difference between pointing a tank gun at students in the streets of Prague (which he did) and another tank gun at Palestinians in Israel (which he also did).

Throughout all of this, Bezmozgis also paints a thorough portrait of Rome (including the coastal towns of Ostia and Ladispoli where most of the Jews are housed while they await their papers) as it is experienced by the displaced poor. It is only a transit point, but people still have to make money to survive and they still have a common culture and shared experience — anyone who has walked by the street bazaars and tawdry goods spread on blankets in any large Western metropolis will recognize his descriptions.

The emptiness of displacement, albeit with some hope for a future. The conflicting tensions inside a family, the different memories each one carries of what was and the different aspirations each has for the future. The formation of a temporary community of forlorn souls as they wait to move on, something that is present in every diaspora.

Bezmozgis captures all of that in The Free World, certainly the best new novel that I have read to date this year. He was born in Riga in 1973 and one of the novel’s dedications is in memory of Mendel Bezmozgis (1935-2006), so one can assume there is some personal experience present in this story. His first published book, Natasha and Other Stories (2004), was a collection of seven stories featuring a Russian immigrant family in Toronto — it’s hard not to think that the family (the Bermans in that book) doesn’t represent the Krasnansky’s, post-Rome.

I thought Natasha was excellent — this novel is even better. David Bezmozgis is a voice that we are going to hear much from in the future (some reviewers have even called him the new Philip Roth, which might be just a tad premature), but that is no reason not to read him now. I not only expect to see The Free World Giller-listed (as Natasha was), I fully expect it to be on the list when the Booker dozen is revealed in July.

A well-chosen epigraph often supplies an appropriate stage for a book, so I’ll end this review by quoting The Free World‘s:

Now the Lord said unto Abram: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee.” — Genesis 12:1

(Note to Calgary visitors here: David Bezmozgis will be in Calgary May 14 for an event co-sponsored by the Writers’ Trust of Canada and Pages Books on Kensington — details are available by phoning Pages at 403-283-6655.)

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33 Responses to “The Free World, by David Bezmozgis”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    This sounds excellent. You know I have an interest in Russian books. Do you know anything about the author?

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I know only that he lives in Toronto and that the Natasha stories were regarded as a very fair portrayal of the Russian community there, in addition to being very good writing. I did see a fair number of interviews and feature stories when I googled his name to refresh my memory of Natasha, but I’ll admit I didn’t read any of them. May drop in on some of them in a few days — at the moment, I’d prefer to just let the book “age” in my mind. I do think it is an exceptional achievement.

  3. Guy Savage Says:

    I added it to my list.

    Every Saturday night is Russian film night around here. I’m halfway through a 10 hr Russian television production, Queen Margot. Interesting to see Russians play French.

    Alos interesting to hear the author lives in Toronto. Toronto is also the home of Erma Odrach (www.theodoreodrach.com)

  4. Guy Savage Says:

    I should add that Odrach’s book Wave of Terror is written in Ukrainian.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I wasn’t aware of Odrach — and don’t read Ukrainian so I doubt I’ll be picking it up. Interesting in that Josef Skvorecky made a career of writing novels in Czech while living in Canada (although most did get translated). I have read a couple of his with middling results — I think his target audience was more Czech than me.

      And I think I’ll stick with your Italian DVD recommendations for now — have an impressive pile to watch and rewatch. Inspector Coliandro is the latest arrival, although while episodes 5-8 are on hand, episodes 1-4 are back-ordered and don’t seem to be available anywhere.

      And it would be only fair to note that Mrs. KfC has us in full royal mode for the next week, so we will be revisiting that for the next while I am sure. If you haven’t read it already, do check out her guest post on the Women Who Would Be King. Very prescient, if I do say so myself.

      • Guy Savage Says:

        His daughter translated the book in English which is good as I don’t speak /read Ukrainian either. I thought of the book since the city of TORONTO was mentioned. Is there a large Russian & Ukrainian Community there?

        I’ve read a few Lucarelli novels and didn’t enjoy them quite as much as Camilleri. I could swear episodes 1-4 are available on Amazon (through sellers), but the page is strange and includes reviews of Henning Mankell’s Wallender series.

        You could also try http://www.italian-mysteries.com

        Will check out the wife’s post but I am not a fan of the royals. I think they’re a bunch of loafers. People keep asking me at work if I am going to get up at some ridiculous hour to watch the pomp. I suppose they think that because I am British I feel some affinity or allegiance or (fill in the blank)

        • KevinfromCanada Says:

          Guy: There is a largish community of 1970s era Russians (including the Bezmozgis family) which the author featured in his short stories in Natasha — apparently his elders complained they are too recognizable in the stories.

          Toronto has always been the Canadian centre for immigrants (except those whose first language is French) and has a number of “communities” where they settled in clumps. That’s the reason for the advice in the book to “not say you want to go to Toronto” — better to say Winnipeg or whatever and then head to the metropolis when you arrive.

          • Guy Savage Says:

            There’s a large Russian community in Brighton Beach (NY) and another in Sacramento Ca.

            I have a cousin who almost emigrated to Canada but the plans went south when his engagement to a Canadian ended.

  5. leroyhunter Says:

    It does sound excellent Kevin. I was quite struck by your note that you were so impressed you wanted to read it again prior to reviewing.

    It reminds me somewhat of the also very higly praised Red Plenty by Francis Spufford: the 2 together could make interesting companions. This is a different perspective but is still concerned (as your quote shows) with the reality of life under communism as it was lived by those who were ordinary parts of the system.

    I’m already interested in what happens to “bumbler” Alec. So it’s on the wishlist.

  6. Lisa Hill Says:

    It sounds intriguing, I’ve added it to my wishlist.

  7. dovegreyreader Says:

    Kevin thank you for this, I’ve skim read because I have this one in my sights and don’t want to know too much about it before I read, but Penguin are pushing this hard here in the UK so that makes me think it might be a Booker submission for them….they have sent me three copies already!
    I also have to say the Canadian cover (and you know these things matter to me!) far surpasses the UK one for that reader-enticement into a book… what is it about suitcases that say so much about journeys and baggage and treasured possessions like nothing else can.

  8. Trevor Says:

    This one arrived yesterday, and I’m trying to decide whether it is now my next read ormone tomsave for a few weeks. Hmmmmm. Leaning heavily to next read.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Thanks for the pointer to Red Plenty — the two books do seem to have something in common in that they go beyond the “evil Soviet” model of the Cold War to look at how people experienced post-WWII life there. Which certainly wasn’t perfect, but perhaps somewhat more complicated than the Western picture of it (that’s why I found Samuil such an interesting character). Following on The Afterparty discussion here, I should note that The Free World is a traditionally structured novel — unlike say Chabon on Shteyngart who venture into literary absurdist comedy, Bezmozgis has a subtlety (there certainly is some humor, e.g. the bumbler) that adds depth to his characters, rather than treating them as caricatures.

    DGR: I flinched when I saw the UK cover — it reminded me very much of the North American one for Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. It kind of fit the Chabon (although I still didn’t like the style) but is totally inappropriate for this book because it implies that it is comic. One of the strengths of the novel is the different kind of memory and longing that each character has for the Latvia they have left and the stack of battered suitcases conveys that emotion as you note. I should also add that the baggage ticket on the cover is embossed on the book, a very nice touch that gives another kind of “feel” to the cover.

    The Free World got heavy promotion in the U.S. as well (fallout from the 20 under 40 list, follow-up to Tea Obreht who was also on that list and follow-on to Natasha which was very well received there). Bezmozgis is currently on one of those lucrative fellowships at the New York Public Library, working on his next novel, so that added to the “presence” there. If anything, I am a little worried by the publisher hype — for me, this novel is much better than most that get that attention (there’s the Curmudgeon in me emerging again).

    Trevor: If your current mood is running to something serious, but with some escapist threads to it, I’d say read now. If your hankering for post-modernism, leave this one for a bit.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: One aspect (a small one, I admit) that you might find interesting is how Australia (and Canada, for that matter) is regarded by the emigres, in terms of a potential destination. Israel is seen as a very definite kind of “choice”, as is America, albeit a much different kind. Canada and Australia are “safe” choices (and popular ones — after all, the author’s family made the choice to come to Canada when he was six) which may offer less opportunity, but also much less risk. The Russian Jewish ex-pat community where I live now is quite small, but it was much larger in Toronto where we lived for a couple of years. Certainly this book (and Natasha) add nuance to understanding that community.

  11. Cheryl Collins Says:

    Based on your review I rushed straight over to Amazon to order a copy and ma looking forward to a good read.

  12. kimbofo Says:

    I do like the sound of this one, Kevin. Unlike DGR I’ve not seen any promotion of it in the UK, but then I’ve only spent one week out of the last four in London (as I write this I am actually in the UAE — primarily to avoid the royal wedding shenanigans, but please don’t tell Sheila — ha,ha), so that might explain it!

    I think the thing I find most interesting is the fact that these immigrants wanted to go to Canada or Australia without really knowing anything about their desired destinations. Such a leap of faith. I could not really imagine what it would be like to flee your homeland for a place you know nothing about other than it would be a “safe” haven.

  13. dovegreyreader Says:

    Kim, I wonder if Kevin can confirm a sense I have of connections between Canada & Russia dating back to the 19th century at least with Tolstoy’s assistance to the pacifist sect whose emigration he funded?? I always feel that Canada welcomes those who are fleeing their own country, often the destination country of choice in fiction. Very much looking forward to reading this one.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim, DGR: Canada does have a history of receiving East European religious sects — such as the Doukhobor’s whom DGR mentions (their main settlement is a Rocky Mountain valley just west of us) and various sects of Mennonites (see Miriam Toews’ Irma Voth — Toews is Mennonite herself). Both Toronto and Montreal have long had significant Jewish communities (Mordecai Richler pretty much made a career off of writing about Montreal’s), but my impression is that the Russian segment of these is recent, not historical.

    The settlement on the west in the mid-19th century also involved many East Europeans (particularly Ukrainians), but very few were Jewish.

    As for Kimbofo’s observation, Bezmozgis is very good on illustrating how little the emigrants know about their “choice” of final destination. The first decision is where they don’t want to go (i.e. Israel for most in this book); the second, more proactive one is based more on “who will have us”. Most of the characters in the book want the U.S., but it has higher barriers to entry than Canada or Australia. And as one character notes Canada has the advantage of being “more European than America and more American than Europe.”

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Cheryl: One thing that I did not have space for in the review (and which I think you will find interesting) was a discussion about the role (or lack thereof) that faith plays in these transitional circumstances. Samuil, of course, rejects it all; his sons are secular, but the women of the book tend to be more involved.

  16. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I rather fear to check what the UK cover looks like now.

    But I’ll have to. Fascinating review Kevin and a book that looks well worth checking out. It sounds well written and interesting in subject. What more could one wish?

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: It has only been two weeks, but the book is “aging” very well. The struggles in the family become more real, the pathos of the general community more touching. That is not always the case, even with a novel I really liked when I read it.

  18. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It’s interesting how some books mature and some fade in memory isn’t it? Sometimes I go back to an old review and think “wow, I hadn’t remembered liking this that much”. Occasionally, and more interestingly, I think “hm, I’m surprised I wasn’t more positive given how I remember this”.

    What’s best of course is as here, where the book impresses initially and yet still continues to grow after reading.

  19. (Diane)BibliophileBytheSea Says:

    This sounds like one terrific book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. well done.

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Diane. I hope it lives up to my billing for you.

  21. alison Says:

    I want to say I took way to long to read this book – way too long because it has been by my side but not opened regularly enough in the weeks I have been carrying it. Today, being yet another rainy spring day in Toronto, with my duties done, I finished it.
    I loved it.
    This must be on the Giller shortlist if not the winner this year.
    I came upon his short stories by accident when they first came out and liked them a lot. For a writer, and one young, to jump from short stories to a seamless and deeply accomplished novel like this is extraordinary.
    I probably should say that I have been to Riga, have lived in eastern Europe,and have even smuggled money out of the Soviet Union for Russian Jews. So I was naturally curious and intrigued by this book.
    yet, only once or twice while reading did I find myself nodding that that expression or phrase is exactly what I recall.
    In fact, more to the point, to think about versemilitude is doing the book a great disservice. Obviously Bezmozgis knows that world well and would get it right. What is impressive is that, though he may draw on autobiographical experience (and I don’t know that he does, I do know he interviewed emigres for research), there is nothing in this first novel that reads like a debut novelist writing “what he knows”.
    An acquaintance of mine was lucky enough to get the galleys (for the record I bought the hardcover) and though she was eager to read it, declared early on that “nothing happened”. Her disappointment surprised me. Then, as I read it, not only did I begin the think she was she wrong, for things do happen, they just occur at an often unpredictable rate, but that the sense of nothing happening was exactly the point.
    That very quality is one of the things I love most about this book. Bezmozgis has an assured touch, he can deliver a scene or a character with no spare words. And as the book progresses, he delves periodically and expertly into some of the character’s back story. Having worked as a current affairs radio producer, I would analogize by saying it’s as if he is the ideal host, just as you wonder what one line meant, he finds a way to seamlessly explore that question. The novel, as Kevin said so well, deals with three time periods simultaneously, yet a reader never feels the route is too quick, too slow, or wrong.
    I also loved how he captured the essence of the characters: unlike many North Americans or NA fictional characters, they are not given to personal introspection ad nauseum, his omniscient voice delivers the details we need and the characters cope in their pragmatic-ish ways. It was consistent and convincing.
    In fact, I began the novel thinking or hoping it would ring true to what I knew of that world and ended not forgetting about my experience nd completely taken if not haunted by theirs.
    I won’t go on. And I have strayed from any plot details. Why dampen a glorious read?

  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    For those who don’t know, Alison is a member of the Shadow Giller Jury again this year — so consider this vote number two on a novel that I certainly hope will be on the Giller shortlist. With her experience in Riga, Alison adds another perspective — but I think it is fair to say that we both share high opinions of what Bezomzgis has accomplished with this debut novel.

  23. Tom C Says:

    I have just started to read this and am considering writing a review of it, but to be honest, I am not enjoying it all that much and am finding it a bit of a struggle. I must persevere – and will do so in the light of your enthusiasm.

    By the way, I failed to thank you for your information about the Kindle and the way Amazon are restricting the sale of UK books to the US. I am sure you are correct to warn people about the future for publishing if Amazon strengthen their grip. For myself, the Kindle is mainly about downloading free books from sites like Gutenburg and catching up on so many classics which are difficult to obtain in paper-form.

    As an e-reader, the Kindle works really well and it certainly doesn’t discriminate between books bought on Amazon and books bought elsewhere

  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: I hope it picks up for you.

    As for Kindle and Amazon, there is no doubt that ereaders are very useful to readers, particularly in making the classics readily available. While I am confident that competition will eventually provide a generic model that eliminates these kind of business practices, there will be a shakeout period.

  25. Trevor Says:

    I’m about 100 pages into this and loving it. But, you know, my favorite parts so far are the parts dealing with Polina’s relationship with her ex-husband, the bits that were compiled together for the New Yorker story. I think Bezmozgis is doing such a great job with all of the characters, but for some reason I’m very attracted to her story. Looking forward to finishing the book and to seeing it get some more attention this fall.

  26. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Bezmozgis seems to develop all his story lines in bits and take some time with them — I wonder if having the Polina ones collected in the New Yorker story makes that thread more concrete in the early part of the book. I found that I got more interested in the father’s story as the author put more elements into place.

  27. Trevor Says:

    I’m starting to experience the father more now, in fact. It’s the early part, but it looks like my experience will follow yours, which shows that Bezmozgis is simply gifted at bringing a character’s story to full life.

  28. RickP Says:

    I liked this a lot but had some issues. For me, the side stories especially Samuil were more interesting than core story. I liked all of the side characters but found Alec and his life to be filler.

    This is a fine book and worthy of a short listing. I’d stll put it behind Half Blood Blues and on par with Sisters Brothers.

  29. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: I found myself interested in the family stories from the start — particularly Polina and Samuil. If I had focused on Alec’s story, I don’t think my opinion of the book would have been as positive.

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