I discovered this book via the Shadow Giller Prize jury: Kevin from Canada, Kim from Reading Matters and Trevor from the Mookse and the Gripes, and I bought it because I’m interested in all things Russian this year.
The novel is only indirectly about Russia: it’s about the Krasnansky family emigrating from the Soviet Union, and their sojourn in Rome. The story is set in the 1970s when, in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War, there was a sharp increase in Jewish emigration from the pro-Arab Soviet Union. Yet inevitably they bring their memories with them and as their back stories are revealed, we see the impact of Russia’s turbulent history. The patriarch Samuil has childhood memories of his father’s and grandfather’s murder in the Civil War between the Reds and the Whites (1918-1920). His beloved brother Reuven was killed by a bomb during WW2 and his cousin ‘disappeared’ during the postwar Communist reprisals. Yet Samuil is resilient. A Red Army veteran and staunch Communist, he has survived all these travails and the shabby deprivations of Soviet life aren’t enough to make him want to leave. It is only because in his cantankerous old age, that his sons have ceased to take any notice of him, that he capitulates…
The Krasnansky family comprises three generations of Russian secular Jews. There is Samuil and his stoic wife Emma; their elder son, Karl, an opportunist married to Rosa, and their two children; and ‘laddish’ Alec with his new wife Polina. They are in limbo in Rome, as they wait to find a country that will accept them. They have few choices: Israel, with the welcome mat out for Jews but surrounded by hostile Arabs and the threat of war, or Canada, America or Australia, all of which require circuitous paperwork and delays.
In The Passport Herta Müller wrote movingly about the hurdles faced by Rumanians in pursuit of an exit visa, and no doubt there was similar corruption in other parts of the Soviet Union. Emigration was made extraordinarily difficult for Russian Jews because the Soviets (with justification) feared a brain-drain. So despite the reservations of old Samuil, the relief with which the family gets out is palpable. Notwithstanding the difficulties of relocating an extended family, they are hopeful and ambitious, but also naïve. Misled by optimistic reports from other friends and family, and hampered at every turn by the bureaucracy, they do not realise that relocation will become dislocation…
The irony of the title soon becomes obvious. Nothing in the Free World is free. Things are not only costly in terms of money, but are also costly in time, inconvenience, relationships and personal integrity. From Vienna where the story opens they are ‘free’ to go to Israel, but Alec knows he wouldn’t be free there: he would have to serve in the army, a prospect he evaded in the USSR and isn’t keen to undertake now that life (he thinks) is finally looking up. From Rome, as their case worker advises them, they are not free to go anywhere until the bureaucratic hoops have been jumped.
Bezmozgis conveys a catalogue of woes and worries economically and without labouring the point. For example, in transit in Rome, they have to make their way to an international call centre to make phone calls. While they queue, they overhear a man shouting in Russian:
I can’t hear you well. Can you hear me? The furs? The furs? Hello? Mentka, you hear me? Yosik wrote you what? Your furs? He was with us at the border. He’s a liar. He saw with his own eyes that the furs were confiscated.
In these vivid lines of dialogue the reader can see the frustration and anxiety of being far from home, when the duplicity of others is already straining relationships left behind. The call centre is a place where dreams are broken too: it is here that Emma learns that their sponsorship in Chicago has fallen through, after they had already shipped their furniture there. Her habitual reserve breaks down in the face of this disappointment and she cries openly, no comfort coming from her overbearing husband Samuil who reacts with his typical bluff grandstanding.
Black humour is also used to sketch the chaotic history of the Russian Revolution. When Samuil, who had his war medals confiscated by Soviet Customs, meets a war veteran at Club Kadimah, they discuss revisionism from opposite sides of the fence. Samuil thinks Josef Roidmann is a sentimental dilettante suffering from an excess of Jewish irony:
…What can I say, it’s hard to be consistent with one’s allegiances.
– For some, yes.
– It’s certainly been true of me. If I settle on an allegiance it is guaranteed that new and compromising information will emerge. I revere Lenin, I learn he’s a German agent. I venerate Stalin, Khrushchev tells me he killed Mandelstam and a few million others. I tell you, if I worshipped the sun, we’d all end up in the dark.
– During a turbulent revolution some mistakes are inevitable. But Stalin was a great leader.
– Believe me, I understand how you feel. It’s not my intention to start a debate. It remains a delicate subject for some people. My tongue, once it starts walking, sometimes wanders where it shouldn’t.
– Criticism is easy. The young generation is quick to criticise. It is easy to criticise if you never experienced life before communism.
– Of course, anything is better than a pogrom.
– That is your commentary on communism?
– I consider it no small compliment. In 1920, the Poles came through our shtetl and behaved like animals. You don’t think my father greeted the Red Army like liberators, even if they took our last crust of bread? (p77)
Reflecting the stasis in which the family finds itself, for much of the novel it seems as if nothing much happens. There are disappointments large and small, and apart from old Samuil who remains obdurate, individuals adapt as they must. They sell useless possessions, they take on work rather than live in boredom and idleness. But as Karl and Alec react to their frustrations in different ways things unexpectedly spiral out of control. Their only certainty, the family unit, is suddenly at risk…
A most interesting book!
Author: David Bezmozgis
Title: The Free World
Publisher: Viking (Penguin) 2011
Source: Personal library, on the Kindle.
Fishpond: The Free World