Émigrés in purgatory

(Anne Latini/ Globe Staff)
By Michael Lowenthal
Globe Correspondent / April 3, 2011

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In 1978, the year David Bezmozgis’s debut novel, “The Free World,’’ is set, I was being exhorted, in weekly Hebrew school lectures, to “Free Soviet Jewry.’’ The word “Jewry’’ (so succinctly collective, so sparkly!) made me imagine the task to be as straightforward as it was urgent, as though Jewry were a coin to be snatched from Brezhnev’s palm. But Bezmozgis’s thought-provoking novel, focusing on the emigration of one family of Latvian Jews, suggests that neither “Free’’ nor “Soviet’’ nor “Jewry’’ was as simple as my younger self envisioned.

For example, I would have been surprised by one Western-aid recipient — a devoted Communist — who, when told he might gain entrance to America if he signed a form renouncing his party membership, says, “My hand would turn to stone before I wrote such a thing.’’ The speaker is Samuil Krasnansky, patriarch of the family at the novel’s center. We meet the Krasnanskys on their train trip from Riga to Rome, where we will follow them for the next five months as they wait to hear which Promised Land (America? Canada? Israel?) will grant them asylum.

Samuil, who watched the White Russians murder his father and grandfather, has always viewed the Communists as liberators; he and his brother joined the Red Army, and his brother died for the cause. A devout atheist and anti-Zionist, he abandons Latvia only because his sons have determined to go, and their departure would leave him disgraced.

And what of those sons? Are they fleeing the fist of Soviet religious oppression?

The emigration’s instigator is Karl, the elder son, a natural-born hustler who is more interested in free markets than free religion. His younger brother, Alec, comes along because, well, he’s a comer-alonger: “ ‘More freedom to bumble,’ ’’ Bezmozgis writes, “neatly described his motive for leaving the Soviet Union.’’ As for anti-Semitic persecution, to Alec “it sounded like histrionics.’’ He and his kin are the type of nonobservant Jews who, when handed a copy of the Kaddish at a loved one’s funeral, ask, “What does it mean?’’

None of the characters, it turns out, is a paragon. Alec’s wife, Polina (the third character, along with Alec and Samuil, to whose perspective we have access, and the most compelling), is escaping from her romantic and sexual choices and the shame they bring upon her. And some key players in the story are Jewish criminals whom the authorities were “only too happy to clear’’ from Soviet jails.

And so we see that the freedoms these characters seek are at once more personal and more universal than the synagogue slogans of my youth suggested.

Likewise, the novel encourages us to wonder about the costs of the coveted “free world.’’ Lyova, a fellow Soviet refugee with whom Alec and Polina share a flat, initially settled in Israel; but when, as an Israeli tank officer, he was forced to point guns at civilians — just as he had done as a Soviet soldier in Prague in 1968 — he left the country and is once again stateless. “So far I’ve been a citizen of two utopias,’’ he says. “Now I have modest expectations.’’

If this review has focused more on ideas and characters than storyline, it’s because this is a novel unusually light on plot. Things do happen, though not always in a conventional chain of causality. This desultory mode occasionally results in aimless reading, but for a novel of limbo, it makes some sense. The author’s craft relies on a cannily slow drip of information that another novelist might pour out all at once.

The New Yorker recently anointed Bezmozgis — whose previous book was a story collection, “Natasha and Other Stories’’ — as one of its 20 Under 40 fiction prodigies. Because another honoree, Gary Shteyngart, is also a Soviet émigré and a contemporary of Bezmozgis, comparisons are perhaps inevitable. Shteyngart’s style, though more distinctive, wears thin with its reliance on shtick; Bezmozgis’s, if more conventional, seems more likely to stand the test of time.

“The Free World’’ is funny without being jokey, filled with descriptions that unfailingly surprise. Lyova has “an Adam’s apple that was like a second nose in his neck.’’ A woman named Masha wields “beauty like a long blade, carelessly held.’’ A balding, flabby aid worker who delivers bad news to Alec does so “with the typical Russian look of fatigue — acquired in the womb, marinated in that broth of disappointments.’’

Not everything in the book works perfectly. The material on Samuil’s youth and his relationship to his brother, though it provides thematic grounding, sometimes feels like a story the author was bent on telling, and uneasily married to the more focused tale of the Krasnanskys’ emigration. Overall, though, “The Free World’’ is powerfully realized, absorbing, and old-fashioned in satisfying ways.

Michael Lowenthal is the author of “Charity Girl’’ and two other novels. He can be reached at

By David Bezmozgis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 356 pp., $26