For much of the twentieth century, Russians, especially those living in cities, tended to have small families. Even during the relative political and economic stability of the Brezhnev era, space and food and goods remained scarce. Many families had only one child, few had more than two, and even those two were often separated by seven or eight years for the same practical reasons. And so, when Soviet Jews began emigrating to North America in the 1970s, they brought with them what was, essentially, a generation of only children. Most of these children arrived badly dressed, in East Bloc clothes that were eight to ten years behind the current fashion. At school their lack of English made them serious and shy. The first in their families to pick up the language, they had an early sense of responsibility for their parents. As in most immigrant families, the parents spoke often of the possibilities awaiting their lucky American-raised children, and they expected the children to take advantage of them. In Russian families, however, this job fell entirely to the one child.
This beleaguered only child has been at the center of much of the fiction written so far by the Brezhnev generation of immigrants, whose first books have just begun to come out in the last few years. The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, a comic novel by Gary Shteyngart about a Soviet émigré who comes to New York at thirteen and returns to Eastern Europe at twenty-five to join the Russian mafia, is, in essence, the story of a boy who’ll go to any length to make his mother proud. There Are Jews in My House, a story collection published last year by Lara Vapnyar, is filled with solitary children observing the adults around them, both in the old country and the new.
Like them, David Bezmozgis has just written his first book, a collection of stories that follows a family of Latvian-Jewish immigrants in Toronto over some fifteen years. The Bermans come in the usual configuration of three: Roman, Bella, and their son, Mark, who narrates the book. They are eventually joined by uncles, cousins, grandparents, and other members of the extended family. The stories are full of familiar episodes from Soviet immigrant life. The Bermans arrive speaking no English; the parents spend their days taking language lessons at the community college and looking for work. Mark enrolls in first grade.
That first spring, even though most of what was said around me remained a mystery, a thin rivulet of meaning trickled into my cerebral catch basin and collected into a little pool of knowledge. By the end of May I could sing the ABC song. Television taught me to say “What’s up, Doc?” and “super-duper.” The playground introduced me to “shithead,” “mental case,” and “gaylord.”
Over the next two years, Mark slips into Canadian life with relative ease while his parents struggle. Roman, who had been an Olympic weight lifting coach and physical therapist in Riga, works at a chocolate bar factory while he tries to get his new physical therapy practice going. It takes all three Bermans to compose an advertising flyer for Roman’s office:
I was given the pen and assigned the responsibility of translating and transcribing my parents’ concept for the flyer. My father wanted a strong emphasis placed on his experience with Olympic athletes, as it would provide prestige and imply familiarity with the human anatomy at the highest level. My mother, on the other hand, believed that his strongest selling point was his status as a Soviet refugee. The most important appeal, she said, was to guilt and empathy…. For my part, I contributed a list of familiar advertising superlatives.
Bezmozgis’s stories revolve around home, school, and neighborhood, but he invests the situations with great suspense—and humor. In the first story, “Tapka,” six-year-old Mark and his cousin Jana try out some of their new vocabulary on their neighbors’ lapdog, the only creature in their orbit who knows less English than they do. They discover that they can append “shithead” to any command and the dog will still obey. This revelation about language and loyalty is more than the children can handle; they get carried away with a profane game of “fetch” and carelessly drift toward a nearby road, where the dog is hit by a speeding Plymouth Duster.
The last story, “Minyan,” is set in a subsidized apartment building full of old Jews from various waves of Eastern European immigration, where Mark’s grandfather has recently finagled a one-bedroom in spite of fierce competition. His friend and neighbor, Herschel, shares an apartment with another old widower, Itzik, and there are rumors in the building that the two men are lovers. Itzik is dying of lung disease, and the neighbors quietly plot to have Herschel kicked out of the building after Itzik’s death so that his subsidized apartment might go to one of their own relatives.
They all know that with the death of Itzik, the building’s synagogue probably won’t have the ten men necessary to conduct an Orthodox service, and “all kinds of pressure were being applied” on Zalman, the synagogue’s administrator, who also has the power to keep or evict Herschel by putting in a word to the building manager:
The one-armed Russian man swore he would stop attending services if his brother-in-law was not allowed to take Itzik’s apartment…. Men who had never set foot inside the synagogue pledged regular attendance if only Zalman helped their deserving relatives.
The Saturday after Itzik’s death, the synagogue has more than double its usual number of worshipers, all trying to make a good impression on Zalman. The story hinges on whether Zalman will choose the interests of his congregation (which has been losing members for years and is desperate for new ones) over the well-being of the mild, philosophical Herschel, who has no other place to live and in the end cannot be put “in the street.”
Bezmozgis introduces his characters with quick, precise sketches, hardly describing them physically; their energy is almost purely verbal. Mark’s voice sometimes has a stiff, formal quality that mimics the careful diction of new English speakers (“My mother had always been a dedicated student and she extended this dedication to George Brown City College. My father and the Nahumovskys came to rely on her detailed notes and her understanding of the curriculum”). This rhythm surfaces most often when Bezmozgis explains the Bermans’ family history, Soviet bureaucracy, immigration procedures, or the logistical matters that all three Bermans hash out nightly. (Should Roman leave the chocolate bar factory to devote himself to his physical therapy practice or hold on to the steady paycheck? Should Mark be allowed to leave his Jewish private school for the public school that all his friends attend?) One hears most clearly at such moments the overconscientious child of immigrants, speaking on behalf of his effectively mute family.
Some of the book’s sharpest comedy comes at the expense of the Bermans’ native-born neighbors—in particular, the Jewish ones. Like most Soviet émigrés of their generation, Roman and Bella are essentially secular, but, mindful of the anti-Semitism they left behind, Bella wants Mark to have “what [he] could never have gotten in Latvia”—a religious education at a private Jewish day school. Through the school, and through Canadian-Jewish organizations that take an interest in Soviet immigrants, the Bermans come to know some Toronto Jews. Their first such encounter, when Mark is about nine or ten, is at dinner with Dr. Kornblum, an orthopedic surgeon who has taken an interest in Soviet refugees and promises to help the Bermans by referring his clients to Roman’s physical therapy office. Kornblum and his wife, Rhonda, live in a large suburban house well stocked with electronics equipment and sporting goods. They are descendants, in a literary sense, of the Patimkins of Goodbye, Columbus, but they don’t suffer from the anxiety about status that tormented arriviste Jews in the 1950s. Their anxiety takes a different form: they are looking for “roots.” When the Bermans arrive at their house, they see that the Kornblums have also invited another family of Russian immigrants:
Over roast chicken, Kornblum told my parents and Genady and Freda what an honor it was to have them at his house. He could only imagine what they had gone through. For years he and Rhonda had been involved in trying to help the Russian Jews. If it wasn’t too personal, he wanted to know how bad it really was. My mother said it was bad, that the anti-Semitism was very bad…. Freda and Genady told their story of being refuseniks. Midway through the story, the part where they have been evicted from their apartment and have to share a room with three other families, Genady lifted up his shirt to show everyone the place where he had been stabbed by former coworkers…. After Genady finished his story and tucked his shirt back into his pants, Jerry and Rhonda wiped tears from their eyes.
Later in the evening, Kornblum takes out a photo album to show pic-tures of his grandfather in Poland, pointing out “everyone the Nazis had killed.”
Bezmozgis is one of the few fiction writers in recent decades to register notes of self-righteousness in Jewish invocations of the Holocaust. For middle-class Jews in the 1980s, he suggests, the only causes are vicarious ones—on behalf of foreign Jews or the memory of those who died fifty years ago—and their sense of identity is bound up with struggles they don’t know firsthand. Bezmozgis finds these causes slightly suspect. The story “An Animal to the Memory” finds Mark in seventh grade, his class getting ready for Holocaust Remembrance Day, which the school marks by creating a makeshift museum in a basement hallway:
There were archival photos of Jews in cattle cars, starving Jews in ghettos, naked Ukrainian Jews waiting at the edge of an open trench, Jews with their hands on barbed wire waiting to be liberated, ovens, schematic drawings of the gas chambers, pictures of empty cans of Zyklon B…. We had crayon drawings done by children in Theresienstadt…. Someone’s grandfather donated his striped Auschwitz pajamas…. On Holocaust day, the fluorescents were extinguished and we moved through the basement by dim candlelight.
The observance culminates in a service in the basement conducted by the school’s principal, Rabbi Gurvich, who talks “about the six million, about the vicious Nazis, about our history of oppression.” Listening to Gurvich’s voice reverberating in the hallway, Mark has a moment of transcendence: “When he intoned the El Maleh Rachamim, I felt his voice reach into me, down into that place where my mother said I was supposed to have the thing called my ‘Jewish soul.'” The moment doesn’t last. As the students are filing out of the hallway after Gurvich’s speech, Mark gets into a fistfight with one of his classmates. The rabbi pulls the boys apart, and Mark is made to wait in the museum alone until the rabbi returns to scold in the last scene of the story:
—Look around this, Berman, what do you see?
—And does this make you feel anything?
—Yes? It does?
—I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you feel anything.
He put his hand on my shoulder. He leaned in closer.
—Berman, a Nazi wouldn’t do here what you did today. Don’t tell me about how you feel.
Bezmozgis doesn’t mock the Russians in his stories as much as he does the rabbi and the Kornblums. For the most part, he is tender toward the baffled immigrants. He has a particular sympathy for Russian men who seem out of place in a new world of alleged opportunity—men who are fatalistic, passive, taciturn. Mark’s grandfather “entertained no illusions, unless, of course, they were illusions of exaggerated bleakness.” His uncle’s only response to the prospect of marrying an overbearing woman he hardly knows is, “there were positives and negatives.” The uncle
was a good man, a hard worker, and a polymath. He read books, newspapers, and travel brochures. He could speak with equal authority about the Crimean War and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Short months after arriving in Toronto he took a job giving tours in the city to visiting Russians. But he wasn’t rich and never would be.
Mark’s father, who as an Olympic weight lifting coach had been a formidable figure in the Soviet Union (his old passport photo “carried the detached confidence of the highly placed Soviet functionary”), is now one of these weary men, and some of Bezmozgis’s most subtle scenes capture his (and Bella’s) vulnerability and tension in their new surroundings. On the day that the Bermans are to go to the Kornblums’ house for dinner, Mark’s parents—still shaky in their English and anxious about their first visit to a Canadian family—leave work early to spend the afternoon getting ready:
My mother hustled my father and me into the shower together so as not to waste time. I hadn’t showered with my father in years and I didn’t know where to look. My father, however, seemed oblivious to both his and my nudity. He soaped me up, rinsed me off, and put me into a towel…. When he stepped out [of the shower] he looked surprised to find me still standing there.
The stories are full of such delicate, matter-of-fact observations of Bella and Roman.
Yet the parents’ weakness always seems impersonal, the result of the difficult situations in which they find themselves as immigrants; they are helpless, but they are also blameless. We never see them do anything unreasonable or self-destructive in response to their circumstances, or even get on each other’s nerves. Indeed, for all the Bermans’ nervous tension, there is surprisingly little friction among them. It’s not that the portrait of Bella and Roman seems false or saccharine; nothing in these stories would be at odds with a darker, more complex depiction of family intimacy. It seems, rather, as if Bezmozgis is protecting their privacy, refusing to show them in more revealing moments of weakness—when they hurt one another. In this way Bezmozgis seems too closely identified with his narrator. The fictional world itself is constrained by a sense of filial responsibility.
Such protectiveness imposes obvious limitations on the characters. Though Bella and Roman appear in every story, we don’t know them much better by the end of the book than we did after the first story. In fact, they recede into the background as they become more competent in their new surroundings. As a child, Mark studies his parents closely, trying to make sense of the way they’ve changed since immigration. The older Mark hardly observes his parents at all, and we never get an adult—or adolescent—perspective on their relationships. The family eventually moves to the suburbs, but it’s not clear what Bella and Roman want for themselves or for Mark now that the hardest part of their move is over.
Outside the Bermans’ apartment, however, there is no shortage of family craziness. Bezmozgis describes several families in which parents are estranged from children. The most colorful of them is the fourteen-year-old Natasha of the title story and her mother, Zina, fresh transplants from Moscow, where they left behind Zina’s abusive ex-husband. Zina was set up with Mark’s uncle on a sort of transatlantic blind date, and the two quickly married. By now the Bermans have been in Toronto for ten years, and sixteen-year-old Mark is at first uninterested in his vulgar new relatives. He soon awakens to Natasha’s charms. She’s forthright about everything, including her mother (“I can’t stand looking at her. I want to scratch out my eyes”), the old country (“Russia is shit but people enjoy themselves”), and sex (“I’ve done it hundreds of times. If you want, I’ll do it with you”). She’s true to her word, and soon they are doing it regularly.
This story is one of the funniest and strongest in the book, particularly for its sophisticated account of sexual initiation (Mark is not a virgin; what’s novel for him about his affair with Natasha is her frankness about all sexual matters, as well as the intimate routines they fall into as she comes to his basement in the afternoons and to dinner with his parents every evening). It’s striking, however, that in the one story set during Mark’s teenage years, it is Natasha who shows all the aggression and rage. By the end of the story Natasha has seduced Mark’s uncle, drawn blood by biting her mother’s hand during a screaming match, threatened to run away to Florida, and shacked up with Mark’s best friend, a drug dealer. While Natasha nearly breaks apart her family, conflicts in the Berman house remain muted. Mark spends virtually all of his time in his basement bedroom getting high, and his “summer job,” unbeknownst to his parents, is making deliveries for his pot dealer. But his delinquent behavior, unlike Natasha’s, is disconnected from family life: there’s no visible tension with his parents, and Mark never expresses any grievance.
Bezmozgis writes with such assurance that it comes as something of a disappointment that he doesn’t use his sensitive ear and comic gifts to examine domestic life more closely. In the story about the lapdog, a woman at the scene of the accident offers to drive the children and the crumpled pet to the veterinarian’s office. From there, Mark calls home, where his mother has just returned from work. “I could hear the agitation in her voice. The ten minutes she had spent at home not knowing where I was had taken their toll. For ten minutes she had been the mother of a dead child.” This is the only example of humor at the parents’ expense, and seems to hint at the pain and guilt that will be Mark’s lot. With this book, Bezmozgis has told us much about the lives of Soviet immigrants, but he has hardly begun to tell the story of the Bermans.
September 23, 2004