Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

Many books have been written about the immigrant experience: the need to leave a land, the difficulty of assimilating into a new culture and the challenge of preserving identity.  David Bezmogis, a New Yorker 20 Under 40, uses his new and first novel, The Free World, to tackle the story of the Soviet Jews. 

The Soviet Jews that were released in the 1960s and 1970s could not travel directly to Israel or the US.  Often, they stopped over in Vienna or Rome en route to the free world.  The stop over could take days, weeks and even months.  (For a fantastic non-fiction book on Soviet Jewry, click here.) 

Bezmozgis' story opens in 1978 with the arrival of the Krasnansky family in Rome.  The familial patriarch, Samuil, is an old Communist and Red Army veteran, who reluctantly leaves his home and life.  His wife, Emma, reconnected with her spiritual heritage in the Soviet Union.  Although she is only a supporting character, she displays a sharp understanding of her family and their problems.  Their eldest and pragmatic son, Karl, arrives with his wife and two boys.  His muscled physique and opportunistic outlook lead him into the underworld of Rome.  The younger son, Alec, a bon vivant and womanizer, arrives in Rome, with his new, scandalously acquired bride, Polina.

The family tries to find its way through the maddening bureaucratic maze of Rome, while struggling to survive and understand why they left.  On the way, they find other former Soviet Jews and develop interesting connections.  Throughout the novel, Bezmozgis takes us back into the characters' colorful histories, developing who they are and why they left. 

Bezmozgis was born in Latvia. Like Gary Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story and Absuridstan), Bezmozgis's writing is biting and sharp witted.  His use of the English language is shaped by the rhythm of the English as it translates into Russian.  As he said in an interview:

I usually thought about what the conversation would be like in Russian and then would translate it into English. If there was something ungainly about it, then I’d try to correct for it. There are certain words where, if I had a choice between that and some other English synonym, I’d consciously use the one that’s more Russian. My belief is that it will be transparent enough for an English speaker, but if you’re a Russian–speaking reader and you can translate backwards, there are certain nuances that will come through.  Full Paris Review interview here.

The novel has a great rhythm and pace to it.  Bezmogis intersperses humor and tragedy through the book, while meaningfully and thoughtfully exploring his characters.  It is a beautifully written book.  My only critique is that he drops in several dialogues in Italian, which are distracting.  Otherwise, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it.  If you liked Shteyngart, you should read Bezmozgis.  Both deserved their New Yorker 20 Under 40 status.

Other reviews: Largehearted Boy, NYT and The Millions.

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