A Novel of Jewish Upheaval, Flight, and Transition

by David Bezmozgis
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011

In his highly regarded story collection Natasha (2004), the Toronto-based writer and filmmaker David Bezmozgis traced the comedy and pathos of new world arrival and adjustment as experienced by the Bermans, a family of Jewish immigrants fresh from Riga, struggling to find some foothold in bewildering 1980s Toronto. The stories, bitingly satiric and emotionally raw in the mode of early Philip Roth and Leonard Michaels (Bezmozgis’s acknowledged literary mentor), are narrated by Mark, whose role as attentive immigrant son is to translate, and thus register, the family’s journey from Latvia, never good for its Jews, to “the free world” of Canada, the site of an imagined new life in the West.

Among Bezmozgis’s aims in Natasha is the charting of Mark’s growth in filial consciousness, above all in exploring the claims of Jewish identity in the new world. As a young boy in “Roman Berman, Massage Therapist,” a poignant story about the family’s desperate effort to rise beyond their modest immigrant means, Mark witnesses his father’s shame as he seeks help from a local rabbi, before whom “my father wrestled language and dignity to express need.” In “An Animal to the Memory,” a rebellious Mark, now in Hebrew School (where he “affects a hoodlum persona” to express his teenage resentment) is made to whimper and sob at the hands of an angry rabbi seeking to impart the meaning of “Holocaust Remembrance Day.” And in the last story, “Minyan,” we hear the voice of an older and more receptive Jewish grandson, watching over his recently widowed grandfather, who has moved into a seniors’ only apartment house. Joining his grandfather during Sabbath prayers, Mark observes that while the congregants (the old Jews) “came because they were drawn to the ancient cadences, I came because I was drawn by the nostalgia for old Jews. In each case, the motivation was not tradition but history.”

In The Free World, his much-anticipated first novel, Bezmozgis deepens his exploration of Jewish history and memory in the form of a “prequel” to the Berman family’s journey from Riga to Toronto. The Free World conjures a multigenerational Jewish family, the Krasnanskys, in fraught transit from Latvia, unmoored from their host country, waiting, along with other Russian émigrés during the summer and fall of 1978 in exotic Rome, for news of their next assignment, the anxious answer to the question of their new “homeland.”

The Free World enables Bezmozgis to channel personal history, for his own family, along with fellow displaced Russian Jews, was stationed in Ladispoli, a bazaar-like city on the coast near Rome, when David was five, before the family emigrated to Canada in 1979. In preparation for writing the novel Bezmozgis walked the streets of Rome, trying to re-imagine the family’s tenuous Italian sojourn.

At the same time The Free World allows Bezmozgis to attempt a bigger canvas, to portray a relatively obscure if charged interval in the continuing history of Jewish upheaval, flight, and transition. Tellingly, Bezmozgis describes the novel’s focus as an “in-between period, that purgatory … the balancing point between the past, the unknowable future, and the present [ie., 1978] which is intriguing and exotic…. It was always fascinating to me that these people had given up their lives without really knowing where they were going.”

The Free World presents a sprawling cast of characters in limbo, each searching for ways of negotiating their betwixt-and-between condition. Fleshed out to varying degrees, Bezmozgis’s “Jews on the move” (the name of the local newspaper for Rome’s fluid émigrés) all carry emotional baggage, some weighed down with heavier packages than others.

Unlike Natasha, which is narrated in a reflective, first-person voice, the new novel is told in the third person by a narrator who describes the Krasnanskys’s journey in a series of cinematic vignettes (recall Bezmozgis’s parallel career as filmmaker). The Free World opens with the brothers, Alec and Karl, manically shoving their family’s suitcases from the platform through the window into a departing train from Vienna’s Western Terminal while the swarm of “the representatives of Soviet Jewry—from Tallinn to Tashkent—roiled, snarled, and elbowed to deposit their belongings onto the waiting train.” In the beginning, then, the family finds itself part of an historic journey, tangled up, however unconsciously, in a latter-day exodus East to West. The incivilities of departure will prove minimal compared to the indignities that await the Kransanskys in Rome.

The book’s tone is by turns terse, comic, and mordantly ironic in the tradition of Jewish storytelling, especially in the example of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry. Babel’s art of compression and concentration, his stories exploding into savage violence, and his voice blending bitterness yet evincing a deep, even obsessive love for the lost Jewish world of his childhood shapes Bezmozgis’s literary imagination. Irving Howe’s description of Babel’s voice aptly describes Bezmozgis’s: “wry, stringent, now and then flaring into eloquence.”

The first character we meet is the Krasnansky’s younger son Alec, a serial womanizer and eternal adolescent, who quickly takes to the heady bazaar-like atmosphere of Rome and its new world opportunities (which include watching pornographic movies). By contrast, Alec’s gentile wife Polina is clear-eyed about the emotional costs of migration. In a series of flashbacks—in effect “back stories” that allow Bezmozgis to deepen the psychological profiles of his main characters—we learn that Polina was married to an earnest but boring husband in Riga, and that she desperately sought any excuse to flee her self-imposed life of “constancy” under the pressure of Soviet social and vocational expectations. Her affair and eventual marriage to Alec provided a means of escape. In a series of letters home to her sister (who, despite her own efforts to leave Riga, will end up trapped in the old world), we sense that Polina, already recognizing that “Wherever we go we will be among strangers,” will soon enough overcome the disorientations of emigration, unlike her narcissistic husband, who continues to bumble his way through life.

The most important, indeed the most full-bodied member of the Krasnansky tribe is the family’s patriarch Samuil. A die-hard communist of the old school still nourished by the utopian dreams of his youth, Samuil remains resistant to his unexpected and unwanted fate as Jewish émigré. Displaced in Rome, Samuil finds himself unhappily forced to live among Jews dreaming of the Zionist return to Israel; Jews embracing a long-repressed culture of Yiddish (including his wife Emma and daughter-in-law Rosa, who are awed by a screening of Fiddler on the Roof, which Samuil dismisses as a “sentimental Jewish burlesque”); and Jews, under the sway of a local Lubavitch rabbi, returning (in Samuil’s judgment) to the false comforts of religious identity.

Disgusted, immured in his Italian diaspora, Samuil at first contemplates suicide, but ultimately drifts into the folds of memory, dislodging scenes of trauma and guilt that eventually come to haunt his troubled self. “They were all obsolete,” Samuil laments, “a traveling museum exhibit of a lost kind: Russian Jewish Communists, unlikely survivors of repeat appointments with death.”

Samuil’s memories of family trauma comprise the most unsettling “back story” in The Free World; they represent the unseen but (as it turns out) inescapable emotional burden he carries. They also represent Bezmozgis’s ambitious desire to filter modern Jewish history through Samuil’s biography. In this respect Samuil remains tangled up in—embodies—a bloody Jewish past. As a young boy at the turn of the century, Samuil witnesses the murder, by the Polish White Cossacks, of his father and grandfather. Bezmozgis’s powerful description clearly is indebted to Babel’s Red Cavalry:

Samuil remembered their caps and their drooping mustaches. He remembered their drawn sabers. He remembered how the one wearing the yellow rug brought his drawn saber down across his grandfather’s chest in a blur of violent force and the surprisingly feeble noise his grandfather made in response. He remembered quaking and then wetting himself as his mother shielded him and Reuven [his older brother] from the soldiers. He remembered his father’s groans and wheezes during the torture. He remembered his father’s face, and how he kept opening his eyes to gaze at them.

The litany of “remembered” phrases in the passage conveys the enormous psychological weight of Samuil’s buried trauma, his witnessing of a pogrom, his shtetl nightmare.

Samuil is also haunted by yet another unspeakable loss, the tragic result of his own strict adherence to the communist cause. In a flashback we learn how Samuil and his beloved brother Reuven, committed Communist Party members, gave up their Zionist cousin Yaakov to the NKVD (the murderous precursor of the KBG), believing there was no way that Yaakov, a professed traitor to their political beliefs, could be saved, even though a good word from his party-connected family members might have spared his life, and erased his name from the party’s list of “contaminants” to be rounded up and sent to a certain death. In a startling passage, Bezmozgis conjures Samuil’s twisted thought process, which reveals the chilling “logic” whereby a true revolutionary, a keeper of the Stalinist faith, sacrifices even blood for the sake of the greater collectivist end:

Sympathy grabbed him [Samuil] as if by the lapels and thrust him forward toward his family…. The temptation was immense. Samuil knew he could master it. Not in great battles or debates was the fate of the revolution determined, but in moments like these. The revolution’s success or failure depended upon thousands upon thousands of tiny, individual moral dilemmas. To resolve them properly, clearly, and bloodlessly was the challenge facing every Soviet person.

Bezmozgis’s achievement in The Free World is the recuperation of Samuil’s twentieth-century Jewish story—a harrowing portrait of commitment and belief, of loss and betrayal—imagined from the inside, presented without judgment. Caught in “the swirling émigré vortex” of Rome in the summer and fall of 1978, his haunted life coming to an end, Samuil refuses to compromise his political faith. “Apostasy is apostasy,” he tells himself, refusing to alter his personal political history in order to gain entrance to America; “It is always between one’s self and one’s soul.”

Despite his internalized rigidity, a defense against a future that did not come to pass, Samuil finds himself immersed in a richly imagined carnivalesque world that Bezmozgis lovingly fills with a quirky cast of fellow Jews on the move, negotiating their liminal condition via the familiar survival mode of weary irony (as in Samuil’s open-hearted comic foil, the one-legged violinist Josef Roidman), or self mockery (as in Alec and Polina’s friend Lyova, with his “archetypal Jewish face…. formed on the run and in a panic”).

In the end, as a result of Bezmozgis’s own filial compassion, Samuil achieves an emotional depth, not simply as a character in a Babel story, but as a figure shaped by the spirit of Babel himself. In Jonathan Rosen’s key observation about Babel:

The nightmare sensation of being dragged back to the self you fled is deeply ingrained in Babel and gives a weirdly prophetic quality to his work…. He was constantly drawn to the remnants of an older Jewish life he found around him, and though he proclaims the death of that world, he knows he is implicated in it.

Like Babel, Bezmozgis (along with his narrator) implicates himself in the world his parents and grandparents fled, seeking to recover, in order to feel, the affective landscape of the Roman “purgatory” that indelibly shaped his own, presumably unburdened life in The Free World. Like the grandson in “Minyan,” Bezmozgis’s motivation in The Free World is not nostalgia, but Jewish history.

In an interview with the National Post of Canada, Bezmozgis explains that the inspiration for the character of Samuil in The Free World is his own grandfather, Jakov Milner, who died in 2006 (and to whom, along with Bezmozgis’s wife and late father, the novel is dedicated): “The world that Samuil came from—the Russian Jewish world of the shetls, the Yiddish-speaking world—that’s gone”; in filial re-dedication, Bezmozgis sought to represent “somebody like Samuil … that he be allowed to speak for himself, and present the case for his life and his own time.”

In a moving 2004 memoir essay, “The Road to Kentucky,” Bezmozgis recounts the pilgrimage he took with his maternal grandfather to Louisville, so that the aged Jakov could meet surviving relatives on his own grandparents’s side, a brave Latvian remnant who emigrated from Riga to the States earlier in the century. “’I want to see who’s left,’” Jacov tells David. “For my grandfather,” Bezmozgis explains, “it was nothing other than a fulfillment of his obligations to history.” At the Jewish cemetery in Louisville, the grandfather stands over the graves marking his dead and chants the El Moley Rachomin in loving remembrance: “He knew the prayer by heart and sang it, as is his habit, with great emotion and at full volume.”

In The Free World Bezmozgis fulfills his own obligations to remember: a Jewish son and grandson chanting words of mercy over his dead, in cadences both haunting, and haunted.


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