In David Bezmozgis’s first novel, the Krasnansky’s, a family of Soviet émigrés, wait in Italy for permission to move to North America, the Free World referenced in the book’s title.
I realize it is wrong to fault an author for not writing the novel you wish he’d written. Still, I couldn’t help being disappointed with the setting and the plot of The Free World, the first novel by the justly celebrated David Bezmozgis.
Bezmozgis, it should be mentioned, was one of the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” celebrated writers. The honorific will certainly follow Bezmozgis for the rest of his life. In his case, it happens to be one that is very much deserved. Bezmozgis’s first book of linked short stories, Natasha, was almost mind-numbingly beautiful in its concision and its stark splendor. His stories and non-fiction prose which have been published in various locales since Natasha (often in the New Yorker) have more than lived up to that first wonderful book.
Bezmozgis moved to Toronto with his family from Latvia as a child. In Natasha, he describes the life of a boy émigré from the former Soviet Union who one assumes is very much like Bezmozgis himself. Through a series of relatively mundane yet without exception heartbreaking, mesmerizing stories, the boy protagonist of Natasha learns to live in a world in which he is, in some ways, the link between the new and the old, the “translator” and “interpreter” of the world around him for both his parents and himself.
I had hoped that The Free World would continue, or at least in some way expand upon, the world that Bezmozgis created so compellingly in Natasha. Instead, though, of moving forward in The Free World, Bezmozgis in his first novel quite literally takes a step back. While the characters in the novel are, as in Natasha, a family of Soviet émigrés, and while this family is planning on moving to North America, the entirety of the novel takes place in Italy, where the family waits for permission to move to the Free World referenced in the book’s title.
Apparently, the first stop for many Soviet Jews after leaving the Soviet Bloc was Italy. Italy then became a sort of holding pen for the homeless Jews, who hoped to obtain visas while there that would allow them to move on to the non-European English speaking West (America, Canada, Australia). In a sense, Italy – a Western country with what the book describes as large-scale corruption and a large socialist population – was for Soviet Jews a sort of foyer or entrance hall to the Free World, a semblance of the thing, but not the thing itself.
This was the case with the Krasnansky’s, the family depicted in The Free World. The Krasnansky’s are a sprawling clan. Their patriarch, Samuil, is a communist to his very core. Samuil had had a relatively powerful position and cushy bureaucratic life in theSoviet Union before his two children, Alec and Karl, ruined his idyll by announcing their intentions to leave for the West. Unlike most Soviet Jews, the Krasnansky’s – Alec and Karl included – seemed to have a relatively pleasant life in the Soviet Union. Due to Samuil’s position in the Communist Party, Alec and Karl lived easy lives, womanizing and enjoying themselves while remaining seemingly immune to the anti-Semitism and hardship that surrounded many of their contemporaries.
Indeed, one of the major flaws with this book is a lack of a real push-factor for the Krasnansky’s to be making their way to the free world in the first place. This is not to say that the push-factor doesn’t exist. It is simply never made clear just why Alec and Karl want to leave the Soviet Union so much, when their lives there seem practically sanguine.
The odd and relatively cumbersome narrative structure of the novel may account for this and a good bulk of its other problems. While the book’s narrative takes place for the most part at the time the Krasnansky family is in Italy, it often, seemingly at random, veers back into Alec’s life in the Soviet Union. Slowly, piece by awkward piece, these snippets tell the story of how he came to be with his non-Jewish wife, Polina, “a true Russian beauty” who left her homeland and her family for him.
In and of itself, this method of detailing Alec’s past would simply be awkward. Indeed, the story of Alec and Polina’s blossoming love loses much of its strength from being picked up and dropped off over the course of many disparate chapters (when linearly excerpted in the New Yorker, the story of their romance worked much better). However, the real problem with the bits and pieces approach is that it is never really completed. While we see the two fall in love, and eventually understand why and when Polina leaves her former husband (when she meets Alec, she is married to another man) and abandons her family for Alec, we are never privy to understand what motivates Alec – when last viewed in the Soviet Union still a successful and comfortable Soviet apparatchik – to give up his cushy life and force his family to do the same in order to leave the East for the unknown world beyond the Iron Curtain.
The book contains a number of flashbacks to Samuil’s childhood as well, which he spent with his brother Reuven. The two boys were practically inseparable. Due to a strange error, though, Reuven gets separated from Samuil when they are fighting during World War II, and Reuven dies. Again, though, there is too much missing from this story – and from Samuil’s own – to make it anything more than an interesting curio.
In describing the world of his parent’s generation as opposed to that of his own, Bezmozgis takes some significant risks. While I understand his choice – moving from one culture to another is both a major and significant undertaking and often a life- changing experience – I am not sure if the book works as intended. Due to its limited focus (the book never gets beyond Italy), the novel seems in some ways too abrupt. Instead of a stand-alone novel, it often feels more like an introduction, or a first chapter, to a larger, more overarching story.
In this way, the form of the book mirrors in some way the novel’s narrative. Like the
Krasnansky’s, stuck against their will in Italy, the reader feels stuck, poised for something greater, knowing that something greater will soon come. The Krasnansky’s have more and better stories in them. So does Bezmozgis.