Perhaps no issue has commanded our attention in recent years more than immigration. Images of migrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Central America, in search of better lives in Europe and North America, have dominated the media for over a decade. Not all viewers, however, have responded sympathetically. The fear that migrants fleeing desperate circumstances would undermine the fabric of Western societies has been effectively fanned by right-wing ideologues. This fear is scarcely novel. It frequently accompanied the influx of newcomers into Canada and the United States throughout the twentieth century. One need only recall the forced internments of Ukrainians, Japanese, and Italians. And yet these same societies, from their beginnings as settler cultures, have always been defined by immigrant communities as newcomers become settled and integrated into a changing body politic.
For Canada, multiculturalism as an official and often contested policy has permitted and encouraged the sometimes problematical voices of immigrants. And through his fiction and films, David Bezmozgis has told the stories of Latvian and Russian Jews as they become part of North American society. In his latest, Immigrant City, he continues and deepens this larger narrative project. Although these seven stories certainly draw on his personal experiences as an immigrant, they also explore more general issues of history and identity.
What is striking about the collection is how Bezmozgis has expanded the scope of the immigrant experience. In his earlier Natasha and Other Stories (2004), the neighbourhood as a unifying principle permits contrasts between generations and between relatively settled families and recent immigrants. In Immigrant City, the unity lies elsewhere: in the daily challenges of the relatively settled protagonists who, to a greater or lesser extent, carry with them the baggage of their pasts. In “Immigrant City,” for example, the narrator takes his daughter to find a replacement for a damaged car door from a Somali who lives in an apartment with his extended family. While the two men negotiate the exchange of the door, the daughter is given the gift of a blue hijab. In spite of the differences of the two families, both men share a kind of fraternal understanding felt by all immigrants, however fleetingly. In an immigrant city — one “of innumerable struggles and ambitions” — the seemingly incongruous image of a white man with a car door and a child wearing a blue hijab is scarcely noticed on the bus or subway. When the father asks the girl whether to go home or keep going, she replies, “Go home and keep going.”
In “The Russian Riviera,” the volume’s concluding story, the reader is transported into the world of Kostya, once a boxing champion in Western Siberia and currently a doorman at a Russian restaurant and cabaret in New Jersey. Like many illegal immigrants, Kostya lives on the margins, within a community of Russians, who, like his boss and his girlfriend’s family, have gradually settled, although their world is one where the boundaries between the criminal and the legal are blurred. Kostya has few skills other than what his training as a boxer has provided; his job as a bouncer offers few options. With a pragmatism reminiscent of many of the protagonists, he prefers “to risk the possibility of gangsters against the certainty of unemployment.”
If these two stories contrast a settled immigrant community to one in the process of becoming settled, other stories explore how a family’s past continues to maintain a hold on the present. In “Little Rooster,” the protagonist traces the life of his late grandfather, who had lived in Canada for twenty years without learning English. His life is initially explored through letters, but gradually the story focuses on an affair and a child, thereby altering the narrator’s understanding of his grandfather. What matters more than anything is a secret that’s been uncovered but is preserved in a present that cannot be shared. In “A New Gravestone for an Old Grave,” an aging father, now blind due to diabetes, wants his son to redeem the family by replacing the grandfather’s original gravestone, described as “the size of a shoebox,” with a new one. If in “Little Rooster,” a man rediscovers his grandfather’s past imaginatively through letters and conversations in Canada, the son in “A New Gravestone for an Old Grave” must return to Riga in order to experience the conflicts and tensions of the past — the worlds of his father and grandfather. In spite of his intentions to keep a distance, he ultimately realizes the extent to which he has become as obsessive as his father.
Bezmozgis writes in the tradition of Isaac Babel, where the residues of oral cultures can still be found. The unfamiliar becomes transformed into the familiar as if it is being remembered and retold, whether in the descriptions of Somali apartments, the street scenes of Riga, or the fight scenes in “The Russian Riviera.” The author’s commitment to narrative itself, especially dramatic tensions, belongs to this tradition. In “Roman’s Song,” Roman Berman is caught within a force field of pressures emanating from the interlocking relationships of family and community. In contrast to his father, who had been a speculator and operated on the legal margins in Riga, Roman spends seven years building a profession as a massage therapist. He must resist the proposition from Kopman, a friend of his wife, to provide a licence for a massage parlour in exchange for money if he is to preserve his reputation. At the same time, he agrees to sell his car to Svirsky, the brother-in-law of a client and a recent immigrant. The agreement is complicated by Svirsky’s inability to pay the full amount, as well as Roman’s association of the car with a time in his life when he was close to his son. As Svirsky sits in the car, Roman is reminded of when he drove his son to school: “To see his small face, with its compact intelligence, a source of wonder and pride. And to watch him turn the radio dial and mouth the words to what seemed to Roman like one long, continuous song.”
The endings of most of the stories remind us of the psychology of the immigrant as survivor, the individual who must continue to live without overcoming his self-doubts, fears, or inadequacies. This reminder anchors these narratives. Notwithstanding Bezmozgis’s talents at storytelling, at guiding his reader into the unfamiliar, the strength of Immigrant City lies in his ability to expose the fragility of the vulnerable ego as a human condition. In the closing scene of “Little Rooster,” the ambivalence of a human connection is broken by the noise of a screaming child. Bezmozgis ends the story: “The sincerity of the feeling gripped us and then released as the girl’s shriek spiralled into laughter.” Here, as elsewhere, Bezmozgis reminds us of the connection we share as human beings in our search for meaning beyond survival, beyond our differences.