The Free World, By David Bezmozgis
No free lunch for this family on the run
Migration is an apt metaphor for the human condition. When we depart our homeland we can never know for sure what will befall us. That's certainly so for the Krasnanskys. They are Jewish émigrés from Latvia who arrive in Rome in 1978. The family has made strenuous efforts to leave the Soviet Union, struggling with officialdom that is intransigent and obstructive when not spitefully hostile. Yet arrival in the free world brings fresh scenarios of doubt and uncertainty.
Rome is intended to be a transit point for the family, but it becomes a limbo. They're forced to find apartments and join the local community of stateless Jews while they struggle through endless bureaucracy. Canada is their desired final destination, but visas are out of reach. To make everything more demoralising, while their own efforts appear moribund, every so often there comes tantalising gossip of other refugees who've secured residency in North America.
Samuil is the family patriarch. He has mixed feelings about emigration because he prospered under the Soviets and supported the regime, even to the extent of handing over his own cousin to the NKVD. Samuil makes minimal efforts in his visa interviews, to the ire of his long-suffering wife, Emma. Of their two adult sons, Karl is a wheeler-dealer who soon immerses himself in dubious commercial activity; and Alec remains an inveterate womaniser, despite being accompanied by his new partner, Polina. Amid intrigue, quarrels and form-filling, the Krasnanskys' stay extends into months.
David Bezmozgis's first work was an acclaimed collection of short fiction (Natasha and Other Stories), in which he demonstrated a talent for subtle, assured tales of migration and cultural change. He was included in the New Yorker's recent listing of the 20 most promising US writers under 40. The Free World is an episodic chronicle, delivered in an understated style which can accommodate serious subtexts as well as ironical humour – all of which provokes comparisons with the Jewish literary heavyweights Saul Bellow and Mordecai Richler.
Bezmozgis's particular approach works best when the characters recall life in the Soviet Union. His spare treatment is appropriate for the stark subject matter which includes dire poverty, abortion, official callousness and – inevitably and most tragically – mass murder of several varieties.
When the novel's focus returns to Rome, it becomes clear that Bezmozgis has set himself severe challenges. His portraits of the family circle are neatly rendered and compassionate, but the Krasnanskys' stasis does not leave much scope for character development or for the epiphanies of his short stories, and the family's longueurs begin to weigh upon the reader. Nonetheless, if reading The Free World is a mixed experience and the novel doesn't quite live up to the hype, there is no doubt that Bezmozgis remains a writer worth monitoring.
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