The Free World by David Bezmozgis

bezmozgis-cover-the-free-worldAs a child on his way to a new home in Canada, David Bezmozgis himself went the way of the fictitious characters in this novel, The Free World (FSG, 356 pages). The book is set in 1978, and mention is frequently made of what is going on in the world at the time of the action. For example, “in Beirut, the Syrians were shelling the Christians, and Israel was massing troops on its northern border.” Meanwhile, “Begin was in America meeting with Carter and the Egyptian Sadat.”

The summit meetings between Sadat and Begin strike one as ancient history now, but the main characters in this book are even more anachronistic. They are denizens of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the novel depicts a special category of Soviets, Jews who have renounced their Soviet citizenship and emigrated abroad as refugees. The standard Western image of such people is that of persecuted, and rather heroic defenders of freedom. Surely there were such types, but Bezmozgis shows us normal human beings with all their flaws.

He shows us, moreover, that the refugee Soviet Jews are still Soviet Russians—from the ways they think and act down to the very ways they hold their mouths as they walk the streets of the capitalist West. Here is a typical description: “a man in his middle thirties, balding, slightly flabby, and with the typical Russian look of fatigue—acquired in the womb, marinated in that broth of disappointments.” Imagine how hard it is to slough off that Russian look on any Russian face, “acquired in the womb.”

The main narrative line features the Krasnansky family from Riga, Latvia: the patriarch Samuil and his wife Emma; their sons Alec and Karl; Alec’s wife Polina and Karl’s wife Rosa. All are Jews except Polina, who ends up being the most sympathetic character in the novel. They pass through Vienna first, then take a train to Rome, where Jewish relief agencies will help place them in a new life abroad. They debate over where to go, which country to choose. Israel is, of course, one choice, but only Rosa wants to go there. Other places are much preferable, apparently, to most of the Soviet Jews living temporarily in Rome. One big reason is the political unrest in Israel. “Alec, having successfully avoided the worst of Soviet military service, wasn’t aching to go from Ben Gurion Airport to boot camp. Getting killed or maimed in Lebanon, or Egypt, or wherever the bullets were flying, seemed to defeat the whole point of leaving the Soviet Union.” The Krasnanskies eventually pick Canada as their destination in the free world.

Of the brothers Alec has a somewhat problematic name. Is this the Russian name Олег (Oleg, pronounced roughly “A-lek”), masquerading in English as a nickname of Aleksandr? If the character were Aleksandr, his normal nickname would be Sasha.

The two brothers are polar opposites: “Alec would see a circus and want to join; Karl, meanwhile, would estimate the cost of feeding the elephants and conjecture that the acrobats suffered from venereal disease.” Karl is the standard Soviet pragmatist and simulator-manipulator. Among Soviet Russians, and surely even among post-Soviet Russians, his type is legion. At one point he speaks disparagingly of a bus driver with “a sad and trusting face,” adding that “my face is whatever it needs to be.” The reader wonders what kind of face he will put on to wear around Canada when he arrives there. Speaking of faces, another incidental character, the kind and generous Lyova—who has already lived in Israel but is looking for a way out of that chaotic country—describes his own face as follows: “Mine is the archetypal Jewish face. Like something formed on the run and in a panic. Nose, eyes, ears, mouth: finished.”

Only a month or two in Italy, while awaiting placement abroad, the thuggish Karl is already involved in several business enterprises, some illegal. He brokers apartments to other arriving refugees, does a bit of money changing, operates a shady auto repair shop and traffics icons smuggled out of the U.S.S.R. His wife Rosa (the most undeveloped character in the family) tolerates his boorishness and occasional infidelities, devoting her life mostly to their two sons.

Alec, age 26,  perhaps the main character in the book, is notable for his frivolous nature, the way he makes light of everything. While Karl is out hustling for money, Alec prefers hustling for women. Early in his life he has discovered that women like him. “In his presence they often became exaggerated versions of themselves. The maternal ones became more maternal, the crude ones became cruder, the shy ones shyer.” Alec and Polina have been married only a year at the time of the action; she has struggled over her decision to leave her parents and her beloved sister behind in Riga. Eventually Alec’s foolish decision to pursue a young refugee, the bad-news Masha, brings tragedy to the family and a likely breakup in his marriage to Polina. She decides to go on with him to Canada but divorce him upon arrival there.

Divorce, in fact, is rife among the Soviet refugees in Rome. As early as their arrival in Vienna, wives are abandoning their husbands, and affairs among the newly emigrated Jews are common. Some couples would have divorced years ago, but they remain together only long enough to get the documents allowing them to leave the Soviet Union. There are “the common occurrences of one man leaving his wife for that of a friend. This was then typically followed by threats and imprecations, and the obligatory loopy fistfight—the whole sorry spectacle played out before somebody’s distraught five-year-old son.”

For me the most interesting character in the book, and something of a tragic figure, is the patriarch Samuil. Despite his Jewishness, he has made a firm place for himself in Sovdepia, working a high managerial post in a radio factory. There he operates as a typical Soviet tyrant, who has a network of informants. He is also known to be a philanderer, apparently taking advantage of his high station to find willing women.

So firm is Samuil’s belief in Communism and the Soviet Way that emigration for him is a personal tragedy. He leaves because all of his family are leaving, but so reluctant is he to emigrate that he contemplates killing himself in Riga. Once abroad, while waiting for Canada, he does nothing but grumble, eventually isolating himself totally from the others while writing a memoir of his life.

In a roundabout way, the author presents that memoir to the reader, shows us what a fascinating and even bizarre life this old man has lived. Samuil started out in a squalid shtetl in the Ukraine, where, as a Jew, he faced the horrors of pogroms and had to watch his own father murdered. In describing that early life, Bezmozgis features wonderful passages of prose. Here he describes the ritual butcher inspecting the lungs of a cow or sheep he had butchered:

“the glossy brownish organs . . . . . the grotesque and otherworldly things that made life possible and which everyone­­—from a mouse to a man—had pumping and sloshing around in the dark hollows under his skin.”

Samuil’s whole life is replete with the dark sloshings of a dangerous world. Later in his boyhood he makes it to Latvia, where he lives with Jewish relatives and is radicalized by left-wing believers in the socialist way. In the summer of 1940, at age 27, he witnesses the Soviet takeover of Latvia, and greets the invaders with open arms. Working as a Red Guard he helps deport “unsavory” types: “Zionists, Latvian nationalists, capitalists, bourgeoisie, members of the former government, priests, rabbis, Hebrew teachers, everyone a potential threat.” Aloft in his dreams of a socialist utopia, Samuil never conjures up one iota of sympathy for the people he sends to Soviet labor camps. He and his brother Reuven, another true believer, do nothing to help their cousin Yaakov (a Zionist), even accompanying him to the cattle cars heading East. Given the Jewish blood that he has on his hands, it is no wonder that Samuil has no interest in emigrating to Israel.

Later on Samuil fights the good fight for the Fatherland in the war against Hitler. Now, late in life, he has no regrets about how he has lived, regretting only that his family has forced him to emigrate, betraying all his ideals and the Soviet system he still supports. His thoughts, however, are the thoughts not only of a Soviet-believer. Much of what he thinks is typical of aged thoughts anywhere in the world.

“How had it happened that the people in the past, all long dead, now seemed to him to be the real people, and the people in the present, including his own children, seemed to him evanescent, so nearly figments that he could imagine passing his hand through them?” The old Jews newly abroad are truly touching figures. “They were all obsolete, a traveling museum exhibit of a lost kind: Stalin’s Jews, unlikely survivors of repeat appointments with death.”

Despite his doctrinaire personality and the sins of his Soviet past, despite his self-centered nature, his callous treatment of his wife and bullying of his own sons, Samuil is a believable character, and, in some dark way, even sympathetic. The descriptions of his death in Rome of a heart attack and his Jewish funeral and burial—attended by the secular Soviet Jews in his family, who have no conception of the Hebrew ritual, no idea what is going on—are probably the most moving in the novel. After the ceremony is done, they all end up singing the one song that unites them, a song Samuil himself would have approved of: the Communist Internationale.

Here is the fine description of Alec’s first viewing of the dead body.

“Alec approached the figure, drew aside the folds, and uncovered a wax replica of his father’s face. He saw the full head of gray hair, the stern brow, the distinguished masculine nose, and the shiny white granules stippling the cheeks. Someone had shut his father’s eyes and removed his dentures. The latter detail had distorted his face, collapsing his mouth and making him seem ancient. Alec’s impulse was to look away, but he resisted out of a duty to see all. He tried to reconcile this pale waxwork with the father who had been such a vital, dominant presence in his life. He felt crushed by the mortal paradox: how it was that his father lay by his side and that his father was no more. He studied his father’s face and understood that there was such a thing as a soul and that it had departed and left behind a corpse.”

Although the book is set in Rome and the characters are, largely, Jews, what one learns most in reading this book is how the Soviet mentality worked. Although describing events of the twentieth century (1978) the novel is already a sort of museum piece. Were these characters to return now, to the newly capitalist Russian Federation, they would be totally out of place. So much has changed in forty years.

What must it have been like for people who had never seen a banana in their lives and were suddenly swimming in bananas? Soviets abroad for the first time, including the Krasnansky family, are obsessed with bananas—not to mention “pineapples, or the chicken and veal in the butcher’s shops.” Then again, there is the thing of colorful clothing. Polina writes to her sister back in Riga: “What I hadn’t expected were the colors. There were dresses and blouses in colors I had never seen. How strange it is to think that I had lived my entire life without seeing certain colors. In one display there was a silk blouse of a deep lavender I associated with exotic flowers.” Anyone who visited the Soviet Union from the West in the seventies, the years of the “Brezhnev stagnation” during which this book is set, was immediately struck by the monochromatic nature of the place—even the capital Moscow: the greys and dirty browns, the absence of bright colors; the disrepair of the buildings. The grimness.

For Soviet people coming out Westward it must have seemed something like the ending of Tarkovsky’s film, “Andrey Rublyov”—when the black-and-white suddenly takes on color, and we feast our eyes on the magnificence of the Rublyov icons. The refugees sit dazzled by the light in Rome, speaking the Russian language, spreading rumors, just as they had back home. But these rumors are not concerned with when the hot water will be turned back on; they have a different content. “They compared climates. San Francisco was wonderful if you didn’t mind rain every day. Atlanta was forty degrees in the shade and you were lucky to find a white cop.” Although nothing is said about black people elsewhere in the book, Bezmozgis hints here at the standard racist attitudes typical of most Russians, including Russian Jews.

In Rome Alec watches a porno film for the first time, then muses over all he had been deprived of back home: “When it ended 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.” Meanwhile, Russian folklore still rules in the minds of the protagonists: “I dreamed of shit last night,” Karl declared. “Means we’re due to come into money.”

Then there are all the nice set pieces about daily life in the U.S.S. R.

(1) On driving a car Russian style, during the years when very few people owned cars and women did not drive: “In Riga his father had owned a car, a Zhiguli, which he drove poorly and infrequently. Arturs [his Latvian driver—the very fact of having a personal driver and a work car places Samuil up high in the Soviet hierarchy] took him to work, and when the need arose Samuil expected either Karl or Alec to drive him where he wanted to go. Otherwise the car sat in the garage, halfway across town. Samuil recorded the mileage on a pad to ensure that neither Karl nor Alec took the car out for their pleasure. It never occurred to anyone that his mother might also want to drive it.” The only thing missing from this account of ancient Russian history—which young Russians today would read laughing and choking on hilarity—is the tale of how Karl and Alec would likely make use of the car for sexual trysts, since in Soviet Russia the sexually willing faced the perennial problem of having nowhere to fornicate.

(2) On home improvement in the U.S.S.R. [actually apartment improvement, since people lived not in houses, but in government-owned apartments]: “Just to wangle ceramic tile for the bathroom, a man pitted himself against the mighty arsenal of the Soviet state. In effect, it was as if Leonid Ilyich [Brezhnev] was himself personally opposed to the tiling of a bathroom. It was the supreme challenge, eclipsing every other human endeavor—sport, sex, philosophy, art, and science.”

The Free World is often beautifully written. “They drove west toward Ostia. Ahead of them, beyond the horizon, the orange sun eased itself gently into the sea. Everything went orange in the expiring light. Orange-hued cars barreled along the orange-hued Ostiense until Dmitri pulled up and veered off onto a side road.” Sometimes there is a poignancy to descriptions of refugee life in Rome, as in the tale of the lost dogs: “The dogs, mostly large breeds, the mastiffs and wolfhounds favored by Russians, roamed in hungry, scraggly packs around Ladispoli, often congregating along the shore. They had been abandoned by owners who’d flown off to Canada or America—who after going to considerable lengths to process and transport the animals from the Soviet Union to Italy, had finally been dissuaded from taking them any farther. During the day, the dogs sprawled listlessly  in the shade of the palm trees, and in the evenings they skulked about in search of food. As with people in similar straits, the largest ones fared the worst. Great, once proud beasts dragged themselves about with downcast eyes, begging for scraps. To feed them was only to prolong their misery. Samuil had seen Italians shooing the animals away, using the Russian words for ‘no’ and ‘scram.’”

The novel depicts only one summer in the lives of the characters, and that is a summer in limbo. Soon they will arrive in their new home, Canada, and the reader wonders how they will get along there. Adept at Soviet conniving as most of them are [two of the minor characters among the refugees are the Bender brothers, an inside joke for readers of the popular Russian novel, “The Twelve Chairs” (by Ilf and Petrov, published in 1928), in which the main character is the conman, Ostap Bender], the implication is that they will do well. In speaking of low-life Masha and her family—her mother and her hoodlum brother Dimka—Karl remarks, “They’ll go to Germany. They can be smuggled in. I’m sure they’ll prosper. There’s plenty of opportunity. Let them be the Germans’ problem.”

The reader is frequently reminded that by far not all refugees are upstanding citizens and persecuted fighters for freedom. Like Dimka, some of them are common criminals who have done prison time in Russia. They are easy to pick out of the crowd, since they are festooned with the tattoos of the criminal underworld. “The unambiguous message from the Kremlin to the Knesset was: You want Jews? Here, take these.” When a Western country takes in migrants and refugees, it surely will be favored with some hardworking and upright types, but then again, the country ends up also inevitably with criminals, swindlers, and, worst of all, the Tsarnaev brothers of Boston. This problem underlies much of what Aleksandar Hemon has written, in his fictions depicting low-life Bosnian refugees in the U.S.

How much happiness, or unhappiness, awaits the Krasnansky family in Canada? David Bezmozgis would have to write a sequel for us to find out. Perhaps he is writing one. One may venture a guess, however, that the family members will find out that happiness in the West is not really at a premium either. Already their three months in Italy have been instructive in that regard. Lasting happiness anywhere, in fact, may be hard to come by. The epigraph to the book is from Genesis: “Now the Lord said unto Abram: ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee.’” The title of the book is The Free World, something of an irony in itself, since there is not really any truly free world anywhere. The implication of the epigraph, however, suggests a different title, The Promised Land, and that title would be even more ironic.

Still in his early forties (born in 1973) David Bezmozgis has now published a book of short stories and two fine novels. Of the Russian/Jewish writers of fiction who have come out of the Soviet emigrations, he is probably the best working today.

U.R. Bowie, author of Hard Mother, 2016

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