Monday, December 12, 2011

Seeking freedom on multiple levels (Books - The Free World by David Bezmozgis)

The Free World, David Bezmozgis's novel about the immigration of a Jewish family from Soviet-governed Latvia to the West in the 1970s, has made a few of this year's top ten lists. Although I found much in it to interest me, it isn't quite making mine. The Krasnansky family consists of Alec, his brother Karl, their parents, wives, and Karl's children. They come to Rome - which serves as the purgatory between their old lives (Soviet, Jewish, a world where they have possessed some power, some property, and some sense of themselves) and their new (Italian, Catholic, a world of poverty and uncertainty). Here they wait to find out which country will grant them a visa - their hope of salvation. This novel is about the aspiration to be free in both a political sense and a personal one. Even as Alec and the other characters aspire to escape Soviet economic oppression and anti-Semitism, they find they cannot be free of themselves. The abstract realm of this paradox is created smartly and on multiple levels however the tension that sustains a drama, the kind one can feel, remained a distant idea.

Some of my criticism is of the writing itself, which could be excessive and self-conscious.
Alec Krasnansky stood on the platform of Vienna's Western Terminal while, all around him, the representatives of Soviet Jewry - from Tallinn to Tashkent - roiled, snarled, and elbowed to deposit their belongings onto the waiting train. He own family roiled among them...
I don't need everyone to write like Hemmingway, but the squeezing of three less-than-common verbs into the very first sentence, though this could potentially communicate something of the frantic crowdedness of the station platform if I had more context, seemed only to say something about the writer coming so early in the story. I was wary from the get go.

Alec and Karl's stories alternate with letters between Polina and her sister, still in the USSR, and memories of their father Samuil of his early life with his brother Reuven. Although Alec's human frailty is meant to be the glue that holds these stories together, the tension between the spoiled, aimless womanizer he is and the man one wishes he could be so that the aspirations of his family can be realized, is abstract and lacking in pathos until too late in the novel. Samuil's story provides more of the traditional ingredients of drama - namely conflict and emotion - but as his story is not this novel's center, it doesn't root it firmly enough. His memories are dramatically justified, which satisfyingly integrates character and plot. When the government immigration forms ask for details about one's life that could influence a decision about acceptance into the country, this occasions for Samuil a deep examination of his life's choices.
Once he was in the country Josef doubted the Canadians would notice that they'd gained another elderly invalid.
He recommended that Samuil also prepare a contingency plan.

- Contingency plan, Samuil said. What is my contingency plan?
- America, Josef said.
- America, Samuil snorted.
- Well, where else?
- Where else? The other place.
- What other place? Israel?
- The grave.
- I understand your persepctive, Samuil Leyzerovich, Joseph said. But please remember that I speak to you as a friend. It is not too soon to start making preparations. Half an hour. An hour. You fill out some forms, saying you weren't a member of the Party, and that's it.
- My youngest secured himself a job with HIAS. I'm acquainted with these forms.
- So then.
- My hand would turn to stone before I wrote such a thing.
- Yes, I understand, Josef said, it's a problem. But the Americans regard Communists the way the Canadians regard invalids.
- Stone, Samuil said.
- Samuil Leyzerovich, these are not your memoir. In one's memoirs - which are, so to speak, between one's self and one's soul - one must be truthful, but not, I would suspect, on an immigration form that is only between one's self and the American immigration service.
Luckily for us, Samuil cannot make this distinction, as his life's events prove to be some of the more engaging in The Free World. In fact, I found the older generation in this novel - Samuil, his wife Emma, and his friend Josef Roidman - far more moving than their children, possibly because they had a moral center and their choices seemed to motivated by something other than what they could get for themselves. Consequently, I felt their losses, whereas Alec's just seemed to be what he deserved.

The novel is not short on lovely details that are instructive of the specifics of a life as a citizen or a refugee of 1970s USSR. For instance, Polina must write to her sister using an assumed name for her and Bezmozgis writes of the selection of this pseudonym, which was not only a sweet moment, but also exemplified this novel's theme of escaping oneself.

There are also lots of good one liners. For instance, when one destination is eliminated as a possible destination for the Krasnansky family, the agency that facilitates their immigration suggests Canada as another option.
- Now is a good time for Canada. I'd consider it myself but I've been waiting on Australia for so long I already feel Australian, Syomka said.
- Do we have to decide this second? Karl asked.
- No, you can think about it, Syomka said.
- We'll think about it, Karl said.
- You can use the stairwell. It's quiet. I'll come and fetch you in ten minutes, Syomka said, and opened the door that led to the stairwell.

In the stairwell, Karl's sons, sensing the gravity of the situation, hooted once to hear the echo, and then were silenced. Karl remained standing and leaned his back against the door.

- This is how you decide your family's future, ten minutes in a stairwell? Samuil asked.
- Wonderful man, Tal. A true genius. Although he is in Karpov's entourage in the Philippines. What can I say, it's hard to be consistent with one's allegiances.
- For some, yes.
- It's certainly been true of me. If I settle on an allegiance it is guaranteed that new and compromising information will emerge. I revere Lenin, I learn he's a German agent. I venerate Stalin, Khrushchev tells me he killed Mandelstam and a few million others. I tell you, if I worshipped the sun, we'd all end up in the dark.
Or, when Alex discusses immigration with his roommate, another Soviet in limbo who has already spent some time in Israel:
What you are looking for doesn't exist, and you're not going to find it.

Taking no offense, Lyova said, That may be so. Then again, I'm not looking for perfection. So far I've been a citizen of two utopias. Now I have modest expectations. Basically, I want the country with the fewest parades.
In The Free World, the supporting cast ends up being more compelling than the lead character and individual episodes more engaging than the narrative arc, which left this reader interested at some times, entertained at others, but only sporadically passionately involved.

See what other blogging readers thought: Reading Matters, Kevin from Canada, The Mookse and Gripes.

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