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 …