When in Rome…

February 20, 2012

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.

Natasha and other stories

February 1, 2012

This collection of short stories by David Bezmozgis, an immigrant to Canada from the USSR left me wanting to read his novel, The Free World.   They are sharp, witty, poignant, and sometimes very disturbing, all focusing on the experience of Russian Jewish transplants to the New World of Toronto.

All the stories are from the viewpoint of Mark Berman, starting when he is about six years old, and in a typical childhood lapse of responsibility, he brings not-quite-mock tragedy to a neighbor by letting her dog run loose, from which a serious injury follows.  A little later in life, Mark is a discipline problem in the Hebrew school he attends, a place from which he would gladly get expelled so he could go to the regular public school, but for the trauma it would bring his parents, or his mother, at least.  Unlike many Russian immigrant Jews I have met, these seem more concerned with maintaining themselves within the religious community.  He receives a harrowing lesson in the meaning of being a Jew, at least as his rabbi conceives it, when he must repent for a disturbance to which he is party on Holocaust Memorial Day.

These stories are not solemn or pious:  Mark has quite a bit of distance between himself and his religious and ethnic heritage.  There is much he may reject, but he is not so foolish as to try to deny it.  He finds comfort in the familiar.

I too find much in his descriptions familiar, while alien at the same time.  For many years, I lived in a section of Brooklyn that was awash with Russian immigrant Jews from the Soviet Union, the last great exodus before the fall of communism.  My ancestors were similar immigrants a hundred years ago or so, and I grew up hearing Yiddish spoken by the older generation, although their English was mostly regular urban American. But the experience of leaving the USSR, not the WWI era shtetl is something else again.

I recall seeing a trio of immigrants in the hallway of my apartment building in Brooklyn:  the pretty young girl, skinny and trying, with some success, to be sexy with her outrageous clothing, and a pair of electric blue eyes; the mother, middle-aged, sturdy, a pretty woman, clearly enjoying the easier life in the USA, and a pair of electric blue eyes; the grand mother, a real Soviet specimen, built like a barrel, wrapped in a dull frock, her face worn and weathered, all her teeth capped in silver, her legs and ankles thick with standing in endless queues for commodities…but those same electric blue eyes!  Three generations’ progress on display!

The title story of the collection finds Mark grown up to high school age, getting high constantly, and obsessed, of course, with sex and girls.  His uncle marries a new immigrant, clearly a woman looking for a ticket out of the USSR and not much more, and the young cousin, Natasha, enters the family.  She and her mother are a real piece of work each, two females who have been ground up into something horrifying and spit out.  Though she is fourteen, she and Mark begin a regular sexual affair, one that seems to lack everything except sex.  It ends abruptly as Natasha’s place in the family is thrown into doubt, just as Mark’s place in the dope-dealing and smoking social circle he has fallen into is suddenly closed to him.  It would be terribly sad, except he seems to come through it okay.  Natasha seems hard as iron, and will survive, but that seems the most that can be said for her.

The final story involves Mark helping his grandfather get a new apartment in a subsidized home for old immigrant Jews.  Two who live there are suspected of being gay.  One dies:  the other, Herschel, doesn’t have title to the apartment.  They weren’t married, of course – the apartment should go to someone else, a good Jew.  The building is run by a rabbi, and it is his job to ensure that the tiny synagogue there has a minyan (the required ten male Jews) for services.  The two gay guys always showed up, which is more than he can count on from the new seekers for the living space.  What should he do?  He’s besieged with requests.  Mark asks what will happen to Herschel and is told:

…my job is to have ten Jewish men.  Good, bad, it doesn’t matter.  Ten Jewish men.  Only God can judge good from bad.  Here the only question is Jew or not.  And now I am asked by people here who never stepped into a synagogue to do them a favor.  They all have friends, relatives who need an apartment.  Each and everyone a good Jew.  Promises left and right about how they will come to synagogue.  I’ve heard these promising before.  And they say:  With so many good Jews who need apartments, why should Herschel be allowed to stay?  This is not my concern.  My concern is ten Jewish men.  if you want ten Jewish saints, good luck.  You want to know what will happen to Herschel?  This.  They should know I don’t put a Jew who comes to synagogue in the street.  Homosexuals, murderers, liars, thieves – I take them all.  Without them we would never have a minyan.

Without them we would never have a minyan.  Could be a slogan for life in general.

Immigration: Invasion by Stealth

October 30, 2007


The body snatchers are coming! Invading secretly, in their pods! Oh, no, it’s not that. It’s the stealth invasion by immigrants from Latin America!

Illegal immigration seems to be a topic that makes people go crazy, some people, anyway. Personally, I don’t understand what they are so upset about. They come, they work like crazy, they pay taxes, they keep our “service economy” running in all sorts of jobs that don’t appeal to native born Americans who seem to think they should be paid more and get better fringe benefits, and they send money home to their families so that they don’t also join their people in El Norte. Clearly, employers want these people – they’re so much easier to exploit; they tend to complain less because they fear being identified and deported. And the population in general wants them, but won’t admit it. But what do they say? Here are a few phrases from letters to the NYTimes today:

Many illegal immigrants are admirable in their drive…but they send vast amounts of money out of the country to their home countries and are often paid under the table.

Legal immigrants never send money to the family back home? And what is this guy complaining about…does he want to raise taxes on the lowest paid of the workers?

…illegal immigration …seriously undermines the rule of law. It is a selfish act that is terribly unfair to millions of other aspiring immigrants who patiently participate in our legal immigration [system]…It creates an underground culture that could,one day convey, shelter, and support a small number of people who wish to destroy our cities…

Okay, here it is. It undermines the law, but who does the undermining? The millions of employers who want them at low cost, or the poor immigrants? Clearly the latter are to blame because they carry with them a foreign disease that could ripen into terrorism. The enemies are among us, and growing, just like those pods. You can’t tell ’em apart. They’re all suspect! And is it really unfair to those immigrants with the time and resources to stick it out through our legal system? After all, what is being taken from them?

And yes, it could, one day, enable terrorists to find their way here and grow, like mold in a dark closet, into something horrible and dangerous.  But so could legal immigration.  Hell, so could natural population growth!  Perhaps we should just close up shop and declare, “No people allowed!”  As someone once said, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.”  It makes us crazy.

…the illegals we are concerned about have undertaken a weaponless invasion…[threatening] the quality of life that has made this country so attractive to foreigners.

Wow! They planned it, right? We’ll all move north, and just demographically grow into the controlling class and make ourselves all legal! The new language will be Spanish, and everyone will have to convert to Catholicism or leave, just like the old days in Spain, 1492! Just how do these immigrants threaten our way of life, I’d like to know? Don’t they make it possible? Just what does this writer fear they are turning the USA into that will, soon enough, be so repugnant to foreigners? And what will happen then; will legal and illegal immigration stop, nobody will want to come to America anymore?

All this is the advanced economy with one of the lowest population densities around, about 120 people per square mile.