A hundred or so pages into David Bezmozgis’s first novel, The Free World, the Krasnansky family—Soviet Jews stranded in Italy in 1978 en route (they hope) to North America—are watching the Hollywood film of Fiddler on the Roof. The screening is taking place at the Club Kadima, a community center in Ladispoli, the Roman suburb where the émigrés have settled.
The musical has found passionate fans among the recent transplants. “This is my eighth time watching,” says one woman. “I’d watch it another eight times. In Russia, God forbid they should ever have a Jewish character in a film. But in America they made a whole movie about us.”
As a “paunchy, hirsute, mountain Jew” with a microphone provides a hilariously free-form translation of the events onscreen, Samuil Krasnansky recalls a play (also based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories) he attended with his mother and brother, in 1919 or 1920, in a former synagogue that the Jewish Section of the Communist Party converted into a social club and theater. But Samuil is less interested in comparing the two productions than in the appalling gap between Hollywood and history:
On the screen Samuil watched a lurid, fetishistic montage of Jewish symbols…. He looked around and saw that his wife, his daughter- in-law, and many others were entranced by it. Somewhere in America, Sholem Aleichem was spinning in his grave. The filmmakers had taken his “goodbye” and turned it into “hello.” What Sholem Aleichem had meant as an acceptance of a new reality and a critique of outmoded ways had here been transformed into sentimental Jewish burlesque. This movie encouraged a wistfulness and a mourning for the past, but what past? The filmmakers had no idea, but Sholem Aleichem could have told them. The old man had seen enough, even if he’d left for America and died there before the worst of the horrors.
Unlike Sholem Aleichem, the Krasnanskys have stayed in the Soviet Union long enough to suffer those horrors in full. Bezmozgis assumes the reader will understand why a Jew might want to leave during the Brezhnev era—or any era, really. And gradually we learn why this particular family might wish to leave the past behind and still be unable to do so. We are repeatedly jolted by restrained but horrific accounts of the murders, betrayals, and humiliations that the Krasnanskys have endured: the casual slaughter of Samuil’s close relatives, a dehumanizing abortion, invasive searches during the final border crossing.
Samuil’s response to the film at the Club Kadima alerts us to one of the brave, and bravely unfashionable, aspects of The Free World. Like Samuil, offended by the kitschy American take on the Eastern European past, the novel offers a corrective to the sentimentalized Old Country (be it the shtetl or the banana republic) that one finds not only in Hollywood films but in literary novels: magical-realist fantasies in which, like Little Red Riding Hood, the victims of history are devoured but disgorged, unharmed, when the hunters kill the wolf.
By contrast, the violence in The Free World seems irreversible and authentic. Among the book’s harrowing events is a double murder described with the reportorial cool of Isaac Babel—a writer who, along with Leonard Michaels, is clearly one of Bezmozgis’s influences. The Kransnanskys’ sufferings remind us of the difference between the savagery of history and the saccharine version that moviegoers and readers alike tend to prefer.
Bezmozgis takes aim at a range of popular assumptions—among them, our persistent faith in the redemptive power of immigration. Despite the increasingly mean-spirited calls to tighten our borders, local TV stations still broadcast ceremonies at which new citizens recite the pledge of allegiance. As the camera pans the courtroom, their shining faces suggest that there’s no wound that can’t be healed, no scar that can’t be lasered flat by this chance to start over. But what happens, The Free World asks, if the history of the immigrant’s native land turns out to be more cumbersome than his overstuffed luggage? One can emigrate to a country with a less egregious record of human rights violations, but the past is the past, and one is still its partial creation.
Readers may well conclude this from the experience of the Krasnanskys, to whom Bezmozgis introduces us at a railway station in Vienna, where Samuil and Emma, their sons Karl and Alec, their daughters-in-law Rosa and Polina, and Karl and Rosa’s two children are awaiting the train that will take them to Rome en route, or so they hope, to Chicago. Little in their histories could have led them to imagine that this journey will go smoothly. Indeed, the prospect of leaving Latvia has made Samuil suicidal. As the finance director of a factory in Riga and a dedicated Party member, he has been able to retain his proletarian ideals while enjoying the luxury of a car and a driver. To speak of Eastern Bloc communism as a failed experiment would be to say as much about his life, which, he feels, has been hijacked by the traitorous capitalistic ambitions of his sons.
Like thousands of Jews who fled the Soviet Union in the late 1970s, the Krasnanskys stay in Italy while they try to satisfy the requirements (interviews, sponsors, medical exams) for a US visa. When Emma’s cousin in Chicago decides to sponsor someone else, the future seems uncertain. But in Ladispoli, the word on the Piazza Marescotti is that Canada is “safer, cleaner, and in climate not all that different from Latvia.”
“It’s more European than America, and more American than Europe,” Alec explains to his parents. “A person can eat and dress like a human being, watch hockey, and accomplish all this without victimizing Negroes and Latin American peasants.”
Applying for Canadian visas, the Krasnanskys exist in a limbo of Soviet Jews suspended between two lives. This awkward position gives Bezmozgis’s characters the double vision of recent émigrés who compare everything they see with its counterpart in the country they left behind. In a letter to her sister, Polina contrasts Viennese and Latvian fashion: “Any single item of clothing worn by the Viennese would be the envy of all Riga…. What I hadn’t expected were the colors…. How strange it is to think that I had lived my entire life without seeing certain colors.” The libidinous son Alec weighs Riga against Rome as a provider of semi-private corners in which to have furtive sex. Early on, a brief conversation on the train from Vienna tells us much of what we need to know about Samuil’s relationship with his sons:
Samuil Kransnansky turned his head and considered their circumstances.
—The compartments are half the size.
This was true, Alec thought, Say what you want about the Soviet Union, but the sleeping compartments were bigger.
—You want to go back because of the bigger compartments? Karl asked.
—What do you care about what I want? Samuil said.
Samuil Krasnansky said nothing else between Vienna and Rome. He sat in silence beside his wife and eventually fell asleep.
In Rome, the bright wares of the market economy show the immigrants what they have been missing. After watching a porn film at a theater near Termini station,
Alec grasped the full extent of Soviet deprivation. If Russian men were surly, belligerent alcoholics it was because, in place of natural, healthy forms of relaxation, they were given newspaper accounts of hero-worker dairy maids receiving medals for milk production.
Often, the chasm between cultures proves impossible to bridge. “The arcane symbols of criminal tattoos” sported by an albino thief from Riga named Minka mean nothing to the Italians, who in turn bewilder Minka and his friend Iza with their barbaric customs:
—The best is in the mornings, Minka said, when they’re all crowded like cattle around the bar, drinking their coffees, empty tables everywhere, not one single ass in a chair.
—So who are the tables for? Alec asked.
—Tourists, Iza said.
Eventually, the Krasnansky brothers figure out how to survive in Rome. Alec gets a job with HIAS, the refugee organization, while Karl engages in shady dealings “about which Alec knew no more than what he heard via rumor—of moneychanging, of used automobile sales, of an illicit traffic in icons.” Rosa, Karl, their children and parents move to Ladispoli, while Alec and Polina share an apartment in Trastevere with a man named Lyova, who arranges tours of Italy for fellow immigrants.
Bezmozgis’s portrayal of Samuil explores the reasons why an intelligent person might embrace a totalitarian ideology to the point of moral blindness—not a subject one finds very often in novels written in English:
Samuil recalled life before the Communists and life after the Communists…. 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 imposters.
The dilemmas that plagued Soviet Jews continue to vex the Krasnanskys and their neighbors. How can fervent anti-Zionists emigrate to Israel? How does a loyal Communist weigh the appeal of Jewish tradition against the Party’s contempt for the opiate of religion, especially when this tradition includes holy relics like the Red Haggadah, a prohibited document that Communist Jews exhumed at Passover to put a safely Marxist spin on the story of Moses in Egypt?
Here Polina recalls the Riga factory where she worked:
Broadly speaking, no one cared about any of the official and procedural events. Celebrate the workers on the anniversary of the Revolution? Why not? Honor the Red Army on Red Army Day? Who could object? Either was a good excuse to avoid work. Lenin’s birthday? Stalin’s first tooth? Brezhnev’s colonoscopy? Each merited a drink, a few snacks, and maybe a slice of cake. So, too, the Labor and Defense Exercises—only with less drinking and without the cake.
Bezmozgis’s first book, Natasha and Other Stories, demonstrated his ability to write graceful sentences. But in The Free World, he has found (or invented) a rhythm that echoes the ever-so-slightly stilted diction of someone who has almost but not entirely mastered a new language. Much of the novel is written in a tone so subdued that it’s easy to miss the risks it takes—most notably, in its unsparing, demon-haunted group portrait of the Krasnanskys. However much compassion he shows for his characters, the light Bezmozgis shines on them is relentless. Their marriages are dishonest, their romances loveless, their familial relationships chilly and eroded by resentment. “Going to see his family felt to Alec like doing penance for any enjoyment he derived from life…. Their conversation was a series of signs and ambushes.”
Karl is a petty hustler, and though Alec imagines he likes women, in reality he is addicted to quick, taboo sex. (A wonderfully compressed, interpolated story describes his boyhood affair with his brother’s girlfriend that lasted the length of a Bollywood melodrama.) Samuil retreats into himself until he can no longer tell protective love from eruptive anger. The female characters are more likable and less profoundly flawed; Polina’s letters to her sister in Riga are the book’s most tender passages. But by and large, the women do what the men say, not counting an occasional episode of score-settling sex with the neighbor. We sense that the Krasnanskys will survive; they have been wise to emigrate. But the damage inflicted on them is so subtle and deep it’s no wonder that pleasure now seems quite beyond them.
Late in the novel, Alec and Polina celebrate Lyova’s good fortune in obtaining an American visa with Chianti, chocolates, and a “mongrel dinner of boiled potatoes, white Italian bread, cottage cheese with sour cream, green onions, cucumbers, prosciutto, figs, and a wedge of parmesan.” Six months in Rome, and someone is finally eating a decent meal! But it’s not as if we want to see the Krasnanskys discover, Julia Roberts–style, the healing power of pasta. When Alec takes his depressingly ignorant mistress on the tourist trek through Rome, all she wants to see is the apartment where he lives with his wife. Enjoying quotidian pleasures would be as challenging for the Krasnanskys as fluently speaking the English Polina struggles to learn. We are meant to accept the fact that they are who they are, unlikely to be changed by the acquisition of a new passport. And who can say that their feelings for each other are not a version of love, stunted by a cruel bonsai practiced on the inner lives of Soviet citizens?
Bezmozgis’s intention here is very different from that of his earlier stories about Russian immigrants in Toronto, fictions set among young people whose experiences (of first love, and so forth) are, however bittersweet, more fun than those of their parents. Despite the pain that the Krasnanskys withstand and inflict on each other, despite their author’s refusal to promise that their problems will evaporate at the Canadian border, we keep reading with admiration. It’s partly because Bezmozgis writes so well, as in this passage describing an electrical failure in a Roman hotel:
Pumping his flashlight at the rate of a quick pulse, Alec stepped out into the hallway. Other people emerged from their rooms also pumping their little flashlights. The effect was reminiscent of the countryside at dusk. It was as if, one night after another, nocturnal insects were awaking to pursue their nightly business. Before long, Alec could no longer distinguish individual sources. The buzzing lost all cadence and dominated the hotel. Alec heard it from the floors above and below, and, all around him, he saw the flitting yellow halos cast by the low-wattage bulbs…. At the end of the hall, a man strummed a guitar and sang the first line of a melancholic war ballad: Dark night, only bullets whistle on the steppe. Interspersed throughout the hallway, other voices joined in and obliged him to continue. Alec passed an elderly woman who leaned against the railing, like a bygone movie heroine, singing, immersed in sentiment. For the first time, a sense of community pervaded. People suspended their quarrels and commiserated about the shitty hotel: no elevator, no food, no power.
David Bezmozgis knows precisely what his characters would do, and feel, during a power failure in a shabby Roman hotel. He understands their griefs, their injuries and rages, their jokes, their regrets and compulsions. And he portrays them with loyalty, respect, and a fierce determination not to dilute or artificially sweeten their strong and bitter stories.