x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

The Free World: a quietly told story about the chaos of a refugee family

David Bezmozgis's debut novel charts the flight of an unlikeable patriarch and his family from the Soviet Union to Europe and beyond.

The release of his collection Natasha and Other Stories in 2004 brought some weighty expectations to rest on David Bezmozgis. A Latvian émigré now living in Canada, his stories were praised for their spare, nuanced reflections on the lives of Russian Jews. His characters were based on his own experiences and his family history. Subsequent works of his have been published in many leading literary magazines, and in 2010 Bezmozgis was named one of The New Yorker's 20 Best Writers Under 40. He has, to some minds, become the guardian of a neglected corner of literature - as the Canadian critic Peter Darbyshire put it, "stories with a grace and quiet sensitivity that's so rare these days it's practically an endangered species."

Bezmozgis's first novel is of a high calibre, though its "quiet sensitivity" may prove too quiet for some. He avoids linguistic playfulness (his only stylistic indulgence is to eschew quotation marks, like Joyce). Careful use of flashbacks advances a central plot peopled with characters based on his family tree. There is humour and sex, but the heart of the book is a fascinating, little-told chapter of modern Jewish history.

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The Free World is about a family based on the author's own, which raises a few questions about precisely where reality and fiction intersect. Bezmozgis was six years old when his family secured safe exit from the Soviet Union, emigrating from Latvia through Rome to Canada. The novel begins as the Krasnansky family, also Latvian, fight their way aboard a train in Vienna, amid "the representatives of Soviet Jewry." It is 1978 and the Berlin Wall will fall in 11 years, but for the Krasnanskys, little about the future is certain. The family is a married couple in their 50s, Samuil and Emma, and their two sons, Alec and Karl, in their 20s. The sons are married to Polina and Rosa, respectively, and Karl and Rosa have two young boys of their own. The family plan to go to Chicago, where a cousin of Emma's has promised to sponsor them.

In the meantime, Bezmozgis's historical research turns up an array of hardships that awaited refugee families passing through Rome: cramped conditions, dependency on government agencies, a bureaucracy intractable to non-Italian speakers. A Pope dies during the family's stay, and so does his successor. There are few other period details, such as music or clothing. Rome is a limbo state where plans are made and unmade and memories ferment.

The varying perspectives of the characters are presented in turn, in short chapters. Each family member is painted rather broadly as patient, despairing, grim, or mildly optimistic, and Bezmozgis tends to harp on these key attributes. Samuil is a strict communist and former soldier. Alec is a ladies' man. His wife, Polina, is a sensible, long-suffering young woman looking for a way ahead. Karl is a former athlete with street smarts. Emma endures Samuil, whose grumpiness, and the reasons behind it, become the backbone of the novel.

At home in Riga, Samuil managed a factory. Even though he despised the West and was a decorated war veteran, he was denounced by his chauffeur as a traitor to the Communist Party. Disgraced and depressed in Rome, with no hope of happiness in America, Samuil becomes suicidal as he surveys his fellow émigrés.

"The Soviets had wisely managed to rid themselves of the least desirable elements," he notes glumly. "In his long life he had never had the misfortune of being cast among such a lot of rude and unpleasant people."

Samuil is no prince himself. When Emma learns that her cousin in Chicago will not sponsor the Krasnanskys, effectively stranding them in Rome, she laments: "It's like a bad dream. I can't believe it has happened." Samuil says to her, in front of the family and a crowd of onlookers, "What's not to believe? It's your own dream. You wanted it. You got it. So don't complain."

Like so many other families in Rome, they must then "spin the globe" and hope for safe haven elsewhere without a sponsor. They briefly consider Israel. Besides Samuil's antipathy towards Zionist "dissidents," Alec and Karl have no desire to serve in the Israeli army. "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." They decide, of course, because this is Bezmozgis's family story, on Canada instead of America, where "a person can eat and dress like a human being, watch hockey, and accomplish all this without victimising Negroes and Latin American peasants."

In a minor twist, Bezmozgis doesn't make bureaucracy the obstacle to the family's freedom in Canada. Instead, Samuil is in poor health - he has a bad heart and other ailments - caused by hard years in various wars, and countries like Canada are loathe to admit infirm refugees.

This fact becomes highly symbolic as the family settles in to figure things out in a suburb of Rome called Landispoli. The novel's main tension then has little to do with the family's attempt to leave Rome. Months pass. There are several mildly interesting subplots, but Bezmozgis's chief goal appears to be to use his extensive research to add detail to the portrait of Samuil. This becomes the novel's central gamble: to increase the unpleasantness of its central character while keeping readers sympathetic. Soon enough, in an implausible but necessary move to advance the spare plot, Samuil's depression vanishes. He befriends a fellow war veteran and begins writing a memoir - quite healthy activities for a caustic misanthrope who identifies not as a Russian Jew but as a Russian Jewish Communist, who, as his son Alec jokes, "once caught Molotov's hat."

Samuil is an atheist and a misogynist who tends to make remarks such as "Stalin was a great leader". He observes cynically how: "Eagerly, in their singsong voices, his grandsons chirped away in Hebrew, and turned back two generations of social progress." Bezmozgis inserts key memories into the narrative to account for these prickly attitudes. Though Samuil went to Hebrew school as a boy and was a member of the Zionist youth, he abandoned religion after he saw his grandfather's slaughter by a sabre-wielding White Russian, and his father's torture in front of the family at home. We also learn of the role that Samuil's beloved older brother Reuven, killed in the First World War, played in shaping Samuil's toughness. "A Hebrew poem never saved a Jew from a pogrom," Reuven says after Samuil wins a recitation contest. Reuven's words echo across Samuil's life. Later, as young men, the two brothers hand over their own Zionist cousin, Yaakov, to the NKVD (Soviet police). He's never seen again.

In Rome all this history comes to bear on a single, carefully placed scene. Bezmozgis has a well-meaning young rabbi approach Samuil and try to discuss religious matters:

"Samuil Leyzerovich, if you had applied the strength of your convictions to the Torah, I don't doubt that you could have been a great rabbi today."

"Nonsense. Had I applied myself to your Torah, I would not be here today. The NKVD would have put me on a train, or the Germans in a pit."

Other characters act as counterpoints to Samuil's despair, but the sense they have of life and their future is grim for both young and old. Polina, Samuil's young daughter-in-law, fears she has "passed through life like a knife through smoke." Alec, who treated life "as a pastime", has now "discovered, much as he'd suspected, that once life caught up with you, you could never quite shake it again."

But it is the words of an unnamed background character that resonate most loudly, as a coda for Samuil: "We sacrificed our youth, our most productive years, our faith. And in the end they robbed us of everything."

Matthew Jakubowski is a writer and critic who serves on the fiction panel for the Best Translated Book Award.