THE FREE WORLD by David Bezmozgis (HarperCollins), 368 pages, $19.99 paper. Rating: NNN
You've never read a story like The Free World, which is why this novel matters deeply - and, presumably, why it landed on this year's Giller short list.
The Krasnanskys are a Soviet family immigrating in 1978 from Latvia to... they're not sure where. They're stuck in Rome waiting to learn their next destination. Their original sponsors in America have backed out. They might be accepted in Canada, but family patriarch Samuil's health problems may get in the way.
Israel will welcome them with open arms, but Samuil's a staunch anti-Zionist, and his less ideological sons, womanizing Alec and budding gangster Karl, aren't into orthodoxies, let alone those of the so-called Promised Land.
Bezmozgis's brilliance lies in his ability to convey the very complex politics behind the Soviet Jewish experience. I got a taste of his grasp of these nuances at an Authors Festival panel in October where, early on, he cautioned the other speakers not suggest that the Soviet Union is the same as Nazi Germany. Later, he remarked that this wave of Soviet immigration to North America was the first to find success in the West without having to wait a generation.
Why? Because, he said, they were educated in the Soviet Union.
His novel, too, refuses to conform to expectations or whitewash realities. Samuil, whose family was slaughtered by White Russians, is still a true socialist believer. While Alec disdains the Soviet bureaucracy, he had no problem exploiting it.
Meanwhile, in Rome, nothing's free in the free world. But the family relishes the wide variety of foods and the vibrant colours of the clothing in the shops, all of which Bezmozgis describes in poignant, sometimes comic and richly detailed scenes.
If there's a problem with the novel, it's that it lacks a strong emotional core. All the characters are deeply flawed - especially the protagonist, Alec - giving us no one to sympathize with.
But Bezmozgis throws open a window on a world we know little about, which makes this a fascinating read.
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