Choices in the Free World
The Free World
By David Bezmozgis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
400 pages / $26
David Bezmozgis’s forthcoming novel The Free World is a tightly controlled and quietly virtuosic performance. I have to admit, however, that when first faced with the prospect of reviewing the book, I was somewhat skeptical. Not that I had anything against Mr. Bezmozgis’s work, but as this was a tale of Soviet immigrants, a subject I was quite familiar with by virtue of being such an immigrant myself, I had doubts about the author’s ability to capture my interest. Owing to my bias, initially I had even mistaken the writer’s restrained, undemonstrative voice for something other than a consciously adopted style. I’m happy to report that it did not take long for me to realize my mistake and be won over — a testament to the author’s ability. Even if you didn’t know that Mr. Bezmozgis was recently picked as one of New Yorker’s 20 under 40, reading the first few pages of his book would be enough to realize that you were in the confident hands of a first-rate craftsman. But the full range of the author’s skill becomes evident only as you get deeper into the novel, and the initial impressions of the story’s ensemble cast give way to the more complete, specific, and intricate personas and relationships.
That cast is composed primarily of the members of a Latvian Jewish family, the Krasnanskys, en route from Riga to Western Europe, and — they hope — eventually Chicago, in the late 1970s. The family is in fact three families: two grown sons with their wives (and in the case of Karl, the elder, kids), and their aging parents. Karl, a hard-nosed, no-nonsense former weightlifter and future businessman, was as we learn the instigator of the move, and is the group’s de facto leader. It is a position that had hitherto been held by the family patriarch, Samuil, and having to relinquish it understandably rankles the old man. Samuil is from start to finish a reluctant immigrant. A staunch and unrepentant communist who had until his departure held the powerful position of director at a large factory, Samuil sees no upside to his new condition and is permanently gruff, resentful and borderline abusive toward most his relations, and in particular his long-suffering wife, Emma.
Samuil and Emma choose to emigrate to stay close to their children, though at least one of those children, Alec, loses no time in separating himself from the rest of the family. Alec is the story’s designated protagonist, a good-natured, likable womanizer whose self-described rationale for leaving Latvia is having “more freedom to bumble.” He is accompanied by his young wife Polina, a Latvian. Her in-laws, especially Rosa, Karl’s wife, clearly disapprove of her marriage to Alec. When the Krasnanskys reach Italy, where they are to wait until some other country approves their visas, Alec is quick to set himself and Polina up in an apartment in Rome, while Karl establishes the remainder of the clan in Ladispoli, a seaside suburb that is home to much of the transitory Russian emigre community.
That is the basic arrangement arrived at early on in the novel, and much of the rest of it is spent revealing the various back-stories that illuminate the characters and their relationships, while chronicling their adventures and travails during the months spent in Italian limbo. If that sounds prosaic, it is so only in the sense that life is prosaic. Reading The Free World, you should not expect to find shocking plot twists, supernatural occurrences or the whimsy of magical realism. Mr. Bezmozgis is unabashedly a realist, and he is out to prove (once again) that a good story does not depend on gimmicks, topicality or sensationalism. To this reader’s mind, he succeeds beautifully. He does so not in the least thanks to the precision and tautness of his language. Forgoing verbal flamboyance, Mr. Bezmozgis instead adopts a measured, unassuming voice, saying just enough and never too much (he also has a perfect ear for capturing Russian idiom in English). It is a good fit for his wry, intelligent humor, and the observant and objective way in which he takes on the players in his drama. For this is indeed a drama — and even, in its modest, lifesize way, a tragedy — which unfolds both in Italy and the Soviet Union in the 1970s, as well as in pre-Soviet Latvia before World War II. This last section comes to us mostly courtesy of Samuil, who, in his expatriate despondency, determines to write a memoir of sorts: “the true account of his life and times.”
In giving us access to Samuil’s memories, Mr. Bezmozgis accomplishes one of the several narrative sleights-of-hand that he pulls off in the novel, namely demonstrating that Samuil’s devotion to the Soviet Union and to communism is not mere blind chauvinism or old-guard recalcitrance, as it at first appears. To Samuil, along with countless other young Jews, the coming of Soviet rule represented the possibility of a new life, free from the terror of pogroms and shtetl misery. To him communism was freedom. He had embraced it wholeheartedly, and though even he could acknowledge that “mistakes were made,” Soviet life had ultimately been far better to him than what had come before. And it is no surprise that unlike to his sons, to Samuil, leaving Riga is the opposite of liberation.
There are other revelations that gradually change our perception of the various Krasnanskys, including Polina and her marriage to Alec, as well as Emma, who relates a deeply moving incident from when she and Samuil were newlyweds after the war. None of these are of the sort that drastically alter the book’s basic plot line, but all contribute to a deeper and more complete understanding of the people we are reading about. And herein lies one of Mr. Bezmozgis’s main strengths as a novelist: he knows how to make us feel close to his characters — by rendering faithfully and at the proper pace their particular human traits, defining moments, and the thought processes underlying their behavior — so that eventually we are extremely loathe to part with them.
In the case of Alec, the most profound discovery comes not from a flashback but in real time, as the story unfolds in and around Rome. Alec is chosen as the vehicle for Mr. Bezmozgis’s meditation on the concept of freedom and the responsibilities it places on those lucky enough to obtain it. Seemingly his father’s opposite in everything but his libidinousness, Alec is in fact what Samuil might have been, had he been born a generation later. Samuil once chides him for acting without thought for the consequences, but that is the idea of liberty that Alec has developed as a result of his relatively privileged existence in a world where individual choice was severely curtailed in all ways that mattered. And in the course of the months he spends in Rome, that idea is tested and found wanting. Alec’s actions, taken in his usual spontaneous, impulsive manner, precipitate various disasters that, among other things, force him to reexamine his relationship with his wife, father, brother, and at last to grow up. As it turns out, it is in the free world that choices become dangerous.
–Ilya Lyashevsky lives in Brooklyn, where he writes fiction and software. His current project, combining technology and literature, can be found here.