Review: The Free World

A tale of tribulations in transition


By David Bezmozgis

David Bezmozgis's stunning short-story collection Natasha traced a Latvian-Jewish family's bumpy adjustment to life in 1980s Toronto. In this witty, assured first novel, which makes good on Natasha's promise, his characters never reach their destination.

It is 1978, and three generations of the family Krasnansky have been transplanted from Riga to Rome by resettlement agencies. When their expectations of joining relations in Chicago are dashed, a family that cannot agree on dinner must blindly choose a country while navigating chaotic émigré society.

The Krasnansky women plump for Israel but are overruled by Samuil, who scoffs as "his grandsons chirped away in Hebrew and turned back two generations of social progress." Samuil's sons Karl and Alec are too busy enjoying Rome to mind. Karl creates shady businesses; Alec courts disaster by pursuing teenaged Masha despite his recent marriage to non-Jewish Polina.

Ultimately, Canada is imposed on them but the family's Italian interlude is only part of the story. Brilliantly demonstrating how dislocation stirs up the past, Bezmozgis uses their five-month stay to delve into 60 years of Soviet-Jewish experience.

The novel flows seamlessly from present to past, untangling two mysteries: the fate of Samuil's family and how Polina ended up with Alec.

Samuil, who lost his Party privileges when his sons decided to emigrate, has nothing to do in exile but read the paper (Jews in Transit), write his memoirs, and wonder how to be a revolutionary when everything meaningful is in the past. History, he muses, was an endless horse race: "the trick is to die at the right moment, consoled by the perception of victory."

Polina, who abandoned a life lived strictly by the book, comes to realise how much she has forfeited. Samuil and Polina, who lost the most by leaving, are the most deeply rounded, but all the Krasnanskys struggle, movingly, with the unexpected burdens of freedom, feeling "at once captive and terribly adrift".

Bezmozgis's self-sacrificing women and womanising men skate close to stereotype, and his inner monologues can become ponderous but the milieu is unforgettably evoked. Along with the squabbling ("Stalin didn't have such a moustache") and a surprising sense of community, demonstrated by two perfect scenes that bookend the narrative.

During a power failure at the refugees' pensione, Zionists, capitalists, Odessans, Muscovites, and Baltics alike wind up their Soviet-issue flashlights and break into song. Later on, both Hebrew prayers and the Internationale are sung at a funeral.

Ironically, this funeral advances the plot, enabling the Krasnanskys to reach the "free world," which may, or may not, mean freedom from each other.

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