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.)