In Rome during the sultry summer of 1978, a small boy is waiting with his mother along with scores of Russian-Jewish émigrés in the office of the Joint Distribution Committee. At his mother’s urging, he stands up formally to recite from memory a poem he had learned at his elite kindergarten in Leningrad:
When Lenin was little
With a head of boyish curls
He also gamboled happily
Upon the snowy hills
Stone upon stone
Brick upon brick
Gone is our Lenin, Vladimir Illich
Deep in the Kremlin
A kind heart resides
Sad are the workers
Sad too am I.
As a symbol of the uselessness of the knowledge, experience and behaviour that the émigré characters bring with them from the USSR in David Bezmozgis’s first novel—as well as an example of the author’s sly humour—this scene could not be better. It alerts the reader, early in The Free World, to one of the themes of the book: what to do with the past when its link to the present has been severed. The would-be immigrant is urged to reinvent himself or herself and look to the future, but how can one throw memories and personal history overboard like so much excess baggage? The question haunts the stubborn patriarch of the extended Krasnansky family, Samuil, former revolutionary, war hero, atheist, ex-finance director of a Riga radio factory, party apparatchik, unreconstructed communist. Born into a Yiddish-speaking home, Samuil at age six saw his father murdered in a pogrom. His memories trace the 20th-century history of Latvia through its brief independence in the 1920s and ’30s, the rise of the dictator Karlis Ulmanis, the Soviet takeover of the country, then the German invasion and World War Two, followed by the post-war communist regime. In all this, Samuil was a participant and sometimes an ignoble one, betraying a cousin to the authorities for the crime of Zionism.
The immigrant novel—from John Marlyn’s classic Under the Ribs of Death to Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony, Nino Ricci’s In a Glass House, Judy Fong Bates’s Midnight at the Dragon Café and Austin Clarke’s The Meeting Point and Storm of Fortune—is perhaps the most significant contribution modern Canadian writers have made to the general stream of fiction in English. Other people in other eras would have been astonished by the drama and inner conflict, the heroism and sacrifice that Canadian novelists have found in the act of changing countries. In Europe, to be an immigrant was an awkward, vaguely shameful state best not to talk about. Canadians, on the other hand, are curious about and admiring of those who undergo this transition.
David Bezmozgis, in a wholly original approach to the subject, sets his story in the antechamber of the Canadian immigrant experience. His novel is a sort of prequel to his brilliant 2004 short story collection Natasha and Other Stories, about the Russian-Jewish immigrant community living in the northern reaches of Toronto. (A character from the first book, the strength trainer Roman Berman, reappears briefly in The Free World.)
Bezmozgis follows his dislocated Latvian Jews over a five-month period of purgatory in Rome, from July to November of 1978, as they await admittance to Canada and grapple with their ambivalence toward the choices they have made or had made for them.
Jews who applied to emigrate in the 1970s from the USSR lost their jobs, were stripped of citizenship and were labelled traitors by their neighbours—this happened not only to those who applied, but to their relatives as well. Families, therefore, had to make the decision to emigrate together since the lives of those who stayed behind became intolerable. Unlike Samuil in the novel, his elder son Karl—pugnacious, laconic, a tiger in defence of his family—and his younger son, Alec, an inveterate skirt chaser, have no hesitation about leaving the Soviet Union and pulling the family forward.
The Israeli government agreed to take in those who managed to get exit visas and provided transportation to Vienna; from there emigrants were expected to fly to Tel Aviv. But to Israel’s intense frustration, once they got to Vienna, many, like the Krasnanskys, chose to try their luck in a calmer place. (An excellent non-fiction account of the Jewish emigrant movement in the USSR is provided in Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.)
Bezmozgis, whose early childhood was spent in Riga, has said that, while this book is not autobiographical, his own family made the decision to come to Canada on the spur of the moment during a conference in a Roman stairwell just as the fictional family does in the novel, having received a favourable impression of the country while watching the 1972 Canada-Russia hockey games.
But wait. Bezmozgis has a gift for narrative tension, and he finds it in the machinations of Canada’s immigration system. Canada, it turns out, will not admit someone with Samuil’s heart condition. Bitterly he tells his wife Emma that he will promise immigration officials to jump out a window and kill himself should he require expensive hospitalization in Canada. The family remains stuck in Italy.
At the emotional centre of the tale is the complicated relationship of Alec and his non-Jewish wife, Polina. How they met in Riga at the radio factory where they both worked, how Alec pursued and won her, how he drew her into his family, how she agreed to have an abortion and then share his uncertain fate as an emigrant, is told in flashbacks. In Rome, Alec becomes involved in a dangerous flirtation with Masha, a pouty, manipulative teenage beauty, and nearly loses the intelligent and sensitive Polina. He also gets himself mixed up with Russian criminals peddling stolen icons, a venture from which he is lucky to escape alive. His indiscretions lead to a final tragedy that clears the way for the family to come to Canada. As Alec and Karl bury their father, Alec is finally forced to grow up and try to be a man worthy of Polina’s love. If it is not too late.
To provide necessary exposition and move the story forward, Bezmozgis frequently inserts letters between Polina and Nadja, her younger sister back in Riga. The two women address each other using pseudonyms, calling each other Brigitte and Lola. These epistolary sections are the only unconvincing parts of the book, since both sides of the correspondence are written in the same voice. I wished, too, that some editor had saved Bezmozgis from using such clumsy adjectives as “contumeliously,” “irradiant” to describe a girl and “kempt” applied to a bed. But these are minor missteps in a highly satisfying work.
Rarely does one come across a novel whose characters live as fully on the page as the men, women and children in The Free World. Not only Alec, Polina, Karl, his wife Rosa, the parents Emma and Samuil, but also a host of vivid bit players enliven the story, including Samuil’s idealistic brother Reuven, killed in the war, and his friend, the one-legged violinist Josef Roidman; Polina’s unresponsive first husband, Maxim; the dim-witted hustler Iza Judo; the Italian communist owners of a leather shop where Polina finds employment; and Lyova, the ironic Russian-Israeli dissident whose apartment Alec and Polina share. Bezmozgis conjures a lost world and a moment in history that is rapidly being forgotten, although it happened in our lifetime. And he does it from the inside.