Lynn Harnett's Reviews > The Free World

The Free World by David Bezmozgis
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's review
Apr 15, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: novel

Bezmozgis, born in Riga, Latvia, in 1973, centers this darkly humorous novel on the close-knit, irascible Krasnansky family as they emigrate from Soviet Latvia in 1978, joining the flood of Russian Jews seeking a better life elsewhere. Their way-station on this way to peace and plenty in Canada, America, Australia, Israel – somewhere – is Rome.

There are six adult Krasnanskys and two children. Battle-scarred Samuil, revolutionary and staunch communist, is the literal founder of the Krasnansky dynasty, having shed the family name – Eisner – and taken Krasnansky for “its evocation of the Communist color.”

But the patriarch’s power has dimmed with age. “There had been a point – once it became obvious that his sons would leave Riga, that no manner of threats or appeals would deter them, and that his family and his reputation would be destroyed – when Samuil had, for the first time in his life, contemplated suicide.” But suicide seems like capitulation: “after a lifetime spent eluding death, the habit of survival was deeply ingrained.”

Samuil, cantankerous, bitter, bullying, is the book’s most complex character, because of his age and experience, and is as sympathetic as he is exasperating. The battles and terrible losses he’s suffered – his father and grandfather murdered before his 5-year-old eyes by anti-communists, his brother killed in WWII, his cousin vanished into the maw of Soviet triumph – have hammered him into the principled communist he’s proud to be.

But his two sons have no respect for his legacy. Alec, a bright, charming womanizer in his mid-20s, seems to chart the easiest course through life, while Karl, a couple years older, possesses Samuil’s autocratic character but wields it in unswerving pursuit of money and material security for his family.

While Bezmozgis paints vivid portraits of each family member – even the little boys are occasional vivid blurs of color as they race across the page – he concentrates point of view on three people: Samuil, Alec, and Alec’s non-Jewish wife Polina, with Samuil’s meek wife Emma stepping into the foreground as Samuil fades into the past.

Alec and Polina's characters are still being formed. Even their marriage — only a year old — is a tenuous thing. Polina has drifted along in life, carried on a river of others' making. She had never loved her stolid, conventional first husband and married him only because he loved her and it seemed the logical next step,
as did falling into an affair with Alec.

Alec, though loyal to her as a wife, feels it's his prerogative to take after his father in this one thing and indulge his roving eye.

But Polina is beginning to exert herself in her own life and Alec, though it's a lesson he will have to learn repeatedly has "discovered, much as he'd suspected, that once life caught up with you, you could never quite shake it again. It endeavored to hobble you with greater and greater frequency. How you managed to remain upright became your style, who you were."

Alec and Polina provide the story’s forward momentum as they work, navigate the city, and make temporary lives semi-independent of family and each other. At the center of this makeshift life is the émigré community, which includes a large proportion of unscrupulous, even violent characters, newly freed from
Soviet jails during this window of time in which the USSR was pleased to get rid of its Jews.

But in this temporary stopover in an alien land (none of them speaks Italian), the future is an undefined goal, while the past is real.

As the younger generation hustles to prepare for a new life, Samuil (whose infirmities are blocking their acceptance to Canada) takes refuge in the past. He decides to write his memoirs, which will have "corrective and instructive value."

"For hours each day he settled conspicuously at a card table in the sitting room and demanded not to be disturbed. Nevertheless, his grandsons scampered through the room with impunity and his wife and daughter-in-law often interrupted him with their comings and goings between the bedroom and the kitchen.

"To his wife's inquiry about what he was doing, he said, I'm doing what I'm doing."

Bezmozgis, author of the story collection "Natasha and Other Stories," has an incisive, dryly humorous prose style, which nurtures affection for his flawed, disputatious characters, even when they are behaving badly, and captures family dynamics in all its sniping and essential loyalty.

He joins a very specific time and place, ethnic culture and political climate with the stark, commonplace irony of history's extremely fleeting lessons. Samuil's sons not only disregard his past and his political battle scars, they cannot even share their father's most precious possession, his dead brother's letters, for
they are unable to read the language.

Delightful, sad, wise and wry, this well-told tale should appeal to readers of such greats as Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud.

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