The Free World is a marvelous first novel by David Bezmozgis, who wrote Natasha, and Other Stories, which was also excellent. In this book, he relates the fortunes over a period of about six months of a family of Soviet Immigrant Jews, stuck in Rome, a common way station in the 1970s and 80s for people granted permission to leave the USSR. That was the period of massive out-migration of Jews from the USSR: many went to Israel, by far the easiest destination point, but many more went to the USA, where I met them daily while I lived near to Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. At times, in some places, only Russian was heard spoken. The family in this book is destined for Toronto, Canada, where the author grew up.
The story is book-ended by death: in the beginning, the father, an aging veteran of the Great Patriotic War (against the Nazis, in case you don’t know the lingo) and a Communist loyalist, reminisces over his brother, killed at the front. It closes with his death, and the letter he received announcing the death of his brother. In between, Bezmozgis turns his precise and unsentimental eye on the difficult process of adaptation for the family in transit. Adapting to Rome, to an uncertain future, to an ad hoc life among a community uprooted, and to the past that dogs them.
For me, the father is the most interesting character, a Latvian who welcomed the Stalinist invasion and annexation to the USSR during WWII, a party official who knows “there were some mistakes…” but who reveals why so many people would tolerate those “mistakes,” a few million dead innocents. He grew up at a time when people thought the utopian schemes of political scientists were actually taking genuine form, when there was a right and wrong side of History. He and his brother were so sure of their side, that they stood by while their cousin, a Zionist with no interest in revolution, was deported to Siberia as a suspect element when Latvia was annexed. Even being nearly shot by a brutal NKVD agent, for no reason at all, doesn’t shake his loyalty.
Now, in Rome, on his way to the triumphant, capitalist West, he watches with disdain and some despair as he hears people around him speaking Yiddish, embracing the shtetl ways of his parents, trying to revive all those old customs he was so happy to abandon. At one point, at a school program, his eyes like mine shafts, he endures the sight of his grandchildren singing Hebrew songs on a stage. Two generations of social progress being reversed before his eyes.
The characters in this book are all intelligent, which is to say, they think as people really do, rather than as characters do. They all struggle to make plans, make sense, to find a way forward, and nobody has the answers, nobody is all one way or the other – they are complex. And like every other Russian novel, it seems, women are treated rather badly all around, by the old line Party man, or by the new opportunists.
Although I was fascinated by the father figure, it is Alec, a smart-alec, unserious fellow who is the main character. Like everyone else, he is dealing with the past in this novel that is neither about the past nor the future, but that thin line between them. The fact that it takes place in The Eternal City is an additional irony. Alec would be an endearing fellow – he’s smart, funny, resourceful, and open-minded – but he is also a cad. He can’t help it. He just doesn’t want to let go of his past, doesn’t want to admit he is an adult and must act like one. So much easier to pretend he’s still thumbing his nose at the stupid ways of the bone-headed society he’s escaping. He learns the hard way, too late, and we never know just exactly how he will turn out.
As the child of parents who grew up in the USA, and of a father whose parents were completely American and assimilated, I found Alec’s father’s irritation with sociocultural regression amusing. At any family gathering, there’s always a story about a distant cousin, a brother-in-law of a nephew, etc. etc. who has thrown off the restrictive coil of American consumerism to return to the great freedom of religious orthodoxy. The beards, the clothes, the huge family, the religious fundamentalism… I guess it’s like ex-hippies who raise kids that become disciples of Ayn Rand.