Stalin's Jews

Like his previous book, David Bezmozgis's first full-length novel is about a Jewish emigre family that is strained almost to the breaking point.

The Free World 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
The Free World 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
THE FREE WORLDBy David BezmozgisFarrar, Straus, and Giroux368 pages; $26
Thirty-seven-year-old David Bezmozgis wants to tell us more than he does, but seems constrained by forces he himself probably can’t identify.
Perhaps his self-consciousness is simply an unconscious reflex left over from an anxious childhood, one about which he wrote brilliantly in his first book, Natasha and Other Stories, which was narrated in the first person and published to tremendous acclaim in 2004. These autobiographically linked tales told about the trials and tribulations of the Berman family, Jewish émigrés who left the Soviet Union in 1978 and settled in Toronto. In one particularly poignant story, the young Berman boy remembers going with his parents to a rabbi’s house for dinner with the hope that the rabbi would be able to refer clients to his father, who was attempting to set up a physical therapy practice.
Young Berman squirms in his seat at the dinner table as he watches his middle- aged, weary parents attempt to win favor. After the dinner, the boy accidentally stumbles upon his father giving the rabbi’s wife a neck massage in the upstairs bathroom, her blouse unbuttoned, and listens uncomfortably while she praises his father’s strong hands. When his father finishes and leaves her and sees the perplexed boy staring up at him in the hallway, he mumbles simply, “Tell me, what am I supposed to do?” Bezmozgis’s mastery lay in allowing us to feel the young boy’s angst as he witnessed his parents exposed and vulnerable.
He wrote with painful eloquence of watching his father’s spiritual castration, remembering sadly that “seated across the table from the rabbi, my father wrestled language and dignity to express need. I sat quietly beside him, looking appropriately forlorn. I was sufficiently aware of our predicament to feel the various permutations of shame: shame for my father, shame for my shame, and even shame for the rabbi, who seemed to be a decent guy.”
The Free World is the author’s first full-length novel, and it is also about a family that is strained almost to the breaking point. The Krasnansky family of Latvian Jews has managed to get out of the Soviet Union in 1978, only to find themselves without visas and stranded in a small town called Ladispoli, located near Rome. It is there that they await the paperwork for their final destination.
But their plans do not go smoothly.
The Chicago relatives who were going to sponsor them have had a change of heart. The family has decided on Canada, but they are being held up due to the health problems of the 65-year-old family patriarch, Samuil. Samuil’s wife Emma, their son Alec and his wife Polina, their other son Karl and his wife Rosa and their two small children are all living in various states of suspended animation, uncertain of the future and already pulling away from each other as freedom beckons.
The most alienated of the bunch is Samuil, who feels an utter detachment, almost bordering on disgust, from those closest to him, and who bitterly thinks of himself and the other Jews waiting there as “obsolete, a traveling museum exhibit of a lost kind, Stalin’s Jews, unlikely survivors of repeat appointments with death.”
It is immediately apparent that the Krasnansky family members are all deeply flawed; wounded birds of one sort or another who refuse to tend to each other’s needs or bother to enter each other’s worlds. They find comfort mostly in their own private grief and the secrets they keep from one another.
This is not a lighthearted bunch; there is no humor here and even less passion – only cynicism and resentment and jealousies and barely muted anger. But still one senses an undercurrent of familial attachment and obligation.
Samuil is writing a secret memoir while he spends his days waiting for a future he really doesn’t want or believe in. The meaninglessness he feels in Italy is interrupted by razor-sharp memories of his past life that bring us closer to him. We learn about his being forced to watch as his father and grandfather were tortured and then killed by the Whites because they were against the tsar and for the revolution.
We listen to him remember how his widowed mother was required to go to work as a seamstress. We can picture the Yiddish school he attended as a boy, the uncle who taught him how to bind textbooks, and the Zionist youth group he attended for a while. We can feel his yearning for his brother Rueven, lost forever, when both of them fought the Nazis with the Red Army. Samuil won many medals, but never the chance to see his brother’s face again.
It was Reuven who had first convinced Samuil of the possibilities inherent in communism, who had told him flatly how “a Hebrew poem never saved a Jew from a pogrom.”
And Samuil had believed him – and even now, with so many of his dreams about communism shattered, he still clings to those beliefs. It was this dream, more than any other, that had pervaded his psyche, that had given him hope, that had made him feel that perhaps for the Jews there was a chance. Even after the communists killed their cousin for his Zionist aspirations, Samuil had held steadfastly that communism represented something better.
Bezmozgis is often a magical writer and has an instinctive ear for how Jews speak to other Jews when gentiles aren’t listening. He has said in interviews that he believes great fiction must ultimately deal with irretrievable loss, and that certainly seems to be his focus here. But he has done far more than that. Whereas his first book of short stories was narrated by a self-obsessed young man clearly based upon himself and consumed with pain and alienation, this effort focuses on his attempt to understand the losses suffered by those around him; his father and mother, his grandparents, and the bitter fates of countless other Russian Jews.
There are splashes of brilliance here as there were in his first book, but sometimes it feels as if he is overwhelmed by the enormity of his endeavor, and there are patches throughout that feel choppy and incomplete. Nonetheless, he is just beginning.