Either Side of the Iron Curtain is a Cage
Set among a family of Latvian emigres awaiting visas in Rome during the late ’70s, David Bezmozgis’ The Free World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $26; 356 pp) depicts the Italian capital as an engrossing Kafka-esque prison for the Krasnansky family, who capture our attention, if not ultimately our hearts.
The novel studies the generations: The patriarch, Samuil, whose prestige vanishes like the war medals he is forced to relinquish at the Russian border when his two sons’ decision to emigrate calls into question his loyalty to the Communist cause he has proudly served. His children: Karl — whose brusque and businesslike demeanor contains a deeply violent soul; and Alec — a smooth charmer who has cultivated an amiable mediocrity. And the men’s wives: Emma, the matriarch; Rosa, the mother of Karl’s two sons and a budding Zionist; and Polina, the woman Alec has seduced out of one marriage and dragged with him out of the U.S.S.R.
From Rome, they consider their options for emigration (America, Israel or that beacon of Jewish life in the new world — Canada?) at the same time Samuil’s poor health keeps them from gaining entrance visas anywhere.
Bezmozgis is a brilliant developer of character — regardless of which character he draws. Recently named one of the New Yorker’s “20 under 40,” Bezmozgis has drawn comparisons to Gogol, Babel, Roth, Bellow and Malamud — comparisons so disparate they speak to both his breadth of influence and his ability to be a literary chameleon.
Each chapter contains at least one perfect turn-of-phrase. I was particularly delighted by Samuil’s disgust for the sanitized American film version of Fiddler on the Roof (which stripped Sholem Aleichem’s critiques of Russian Jewry and replaced it with a paean to the “joys” of tradition): “The filmmakers had taken his ‘goodbye’ and turned it into ‘hello,’” Samuil laments.
Yet, this also speaks to the novel’s weakness: It is all goodbye. Bezmozgis, in showcasing characters with no real investment in their emigration, imbues the novel with a deep sadness that can weigh down the reading.
The setting at the heart of Western Civilization thus seems the perfect vehicle for the underlying message. Bezmozgis provides us with a dire prediction for the world the Krasnanskys are about to enter: The free world of the title will, in fact, be just as limiting and limited as the Communist nation they left behind. RT