"The Free World" by David Bezmozgis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, 354 pages)
While stories of immigration (and emigration) abound today, Bezmozgis' first novel (after his collection "Natasha and Other Stories") takes readers to the summer of 1978. We enter the lives of the Krasnansky family — three generations of Russian Jews who leave Latvia, then part of the Soviet Union, and arrive in Italy, where they await visas to another country in the "free world."
Bezmozgis, who was born in Riga, Latvia, was named last year one of The New Yorker's "20 Under 40." He is a disarming writer, drawing us into his story and into the lives of his characters, each with a life story that is engaging and sometimes heartbreaking. His prose is filled with detail and flows effortlessly yet does not draw attention to itself but serves the narrative.
He also uses subtle humor throughout. Here's a description from one character's perspective of marriage: "The wife remained enchanting, full of mystery, to everyone else. Strange men saw her on the trolleybus, concocted brute or intricate fantasies of seduction, while you waited for her to come home with the groceries and wash your socks."
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The Krasnansky family includes Samuil, a Communist and Red Army veteran; Karl, his elder son; Alec, the younger son; Karl's wife, Rosa, and their two young boys; Polina, Alec's new wife; and Emma, Samuil's wife. After a harrowing journey out of Latvia, they arrive in Rome and apply for visas to the United States, but that falls through. Then they try for Canada, but Samuil's fragile health puts them all on hold.
Bezmozgis captures the chaos and uncertainty of the emigration process as well as the frenetic rush to survive by finding work and buying and selling whatever they can during their six-month stay in Rome.
Samuil is a moribund man still hurting from the death of his older brother during World War II. Bezmozgis delves into his story of seeing his father murdered and having to leave his mother and her brother's family in order to survive the coming of Germans to their area.
Alec is a kind of playboy who has a carefree take on life. "No matter how bad life got, the presence of a beautiful woman made it impossible to despair completely." His indiscretions eventually lead to trouble and tragic consequences. More than any character, he seems to experience change and growth.
Alec can be as carefree as he is partly because Karl is the ambitious older brother who finds ways to make money (not always legal) and threatens anyone who threatens anyone in his family.
Polina has left her first husband and married Alec in order to leave Latvia. Part of her ache is for her younger sister, whom she writes in letters that use false names to protect all parties from officials' scrutiny. She must eventually decide whether or not to stay with Alec or return to Latvia, where her sister and parents remain.
Bezmozgis also includes the plight of Jews, though this family, especially Samuil, is not particularly religious. In Samuil's mind "they were all obsolete, a traveling museum exhibit of a lost kind: Stalin's Jews unlikely survivors of repeat appointments with death."
The novel's narrative moves along briskly toward some resolution, though settledness is not to be found among emigrants. Throughout the story, we gain a growing sympathy with not only this family but with all people in such an upheaval in their lives. And we learn that nowhere in the world is one entirely free. It's a relative concept.