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A Demon-Haunted Group Portrait

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Magnum Photos
Central Station, Milan, 2002; photograph by Ferdinando Scianna

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.

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