July 2011

Randy Rosenthal

fiction

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

David Bezmozgis's recent novel The Free World captures the immigrant experience. The year is 1978 and the Latvian-Jewish Krasnansky family is emigrating from the Soviet Union to the West. Beginning with a brief transition in Vienna, they -- and hundreds of other Soviet émigrés -- land in Rome to await visas for the United States, Canada, or Australia, debating whether they wanted to live in San Francisco or New York, mythical names of the free world that in the USSR "possessed magic."

The initial impression of the Soviet family's perspective of the West is one of disdain for the rampant chaos and ignorance, compared with the governmentally organized order of Latvia. Rome is designated as European solely by its location; practically it seems Third World for its hectic competition, traffic, and filth. Indeed, the Krasnanskys quickly find that the free world is a miserable world. Though it is a completely different kind of miserable than the dreary Soviet misery; it is "a happier miserable." 

Riga-born Bezmozgis is the author of the celebrated short story collection Natasha, and was chosen as one of the New Yorker's "20 Under 40" issue, which featured his story "The Train of Their Departure." The Free World contains "The Train of Their Departure," but not like a normal excerpt. Bezmozgis pieced the New Yorker story together with dozens of excerpts from the novel; a sentence here, a paragraph there, and then several pages.

Both the story and the novel center on the charming youngest son, Alec, and his relationship with his newly married wife, Polina. Alec is an incorrigible womanizer; "The Train of Their Departure" told how Alec seduced, impregnated, and stole Polina from her previous husband. In Rome, Alec is at it again. His family is aware of his skirt-chasing habit, which though disapproved of is also accepted (as he inherited the habit from his father). The result of this compulsions's continuation ultimately creates the conflicts and climax of the otherwise uneventful novel. Bezmozgis's writing is sophisticated, with pinnacles of superb style and artfully-delivered insight, but the tone of the novel sets a barrier between reader and text, making sympathy for the characters difficult. Though The Free World remains stylistically engaging, the characters' dry dialogue and unliveliness unfortunately infects the book with a blasé tone that prevents the reader from being moved by their struggles.

What brings personality and depth to the novel is the secondary story that lies within. Polina grows out of her childlike nature after the shock of her second abortion, and she continues to mature when she loses her trust in Alec. Alec also becomes a mature adult when "life, which he'd treated as a pastime, and which he'd thought he could yet outdistance" eventually catches up with him, and he has to deal with the unpleasant consequences of his carefree actions. Furthermore, this is the period when the Soviet Union as a whole finally came of age, and became disillusioned with the empty promises of a bountiful and egalitarian socialist revolution. Disillusionment pervades the novel. The Krasnanskys find that in the West one has "more freedom to bumble," but the order, certainty, and safety of the USSR engender a longing for home and a gnawing sense that they should not have left.  

Always looming in Soviet-Jewish émigrés' minds is Israel, the idea of Israel, Israel as a possibility, a possible happiness. Israel is a place where they know they will be accepted, but it is not as alluring as America due to its image: a demanding nation perpetually at war with its neighbors. The Krasnanskys are Jewish by ethnicity, but Communist by upbringing. Their interactions with an old, little rabbi "mumbling his stream of gibberish" at their father's funeral reveal the ignorance of their ancestors' customs and traditions. It is especially powerful when they all choose to sing the "Internationale" during the burial rather than recite the kaddish.

Toward the end, Polina states that she doesn't think people were made to "form attachments only to have them broken." She's referring to the life of a transitory immigrant, especially those waiting in the purgatory of Rome for visas abroad. But her sentiment pertains to all human kind. No matter if we move or stay, we form attachments to people and places, and through death or otherwise, those attachments will inevitably be broken, and we will suffer.

On a more literal level, however, The Free World is a verbal photograph of "a traveling museum exhibit of a lost kind: Stalin's Jews, unlikely survivors of repeat appointments with death," now on the move to places that will judge them by their bank accounts and skills, rather than their ancestors' religion or their political ideology. Bezmozgis's novel serves as a historical slice of Soviet emigration when the Cold War began to thaw, with a few lines of keen perception sprinkled throughout.

The Free World by David Bezmozgis
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374281403
368 pages