Saturday, June 30, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 22nd post

The Free World by David Bezmozgis will close out the backlog of reviews for this Challenge.  This is an interesting novel.  It looks at an extended family of Russian Jews from the Soviet era when they gained the right to leave the U.S.S.R. (I believe this places the novel squarely in the mid to late 1970s).  In many cases, the emigres first traveled to Europe to wait for processing and to see which country would "adopt" them.  For many, the choice was easy: Israel was by far the most welcoming and had the lowest entry requirements.  Indeed, Israel went out of its way to attract these Soviet Jews.  The U.S. and Australia were fairly attractive options but also could be tricky to get into, even with distant relatives willing to sponsor the quasi-refuges.  Canada was sort of considered a second-best alternative, but it had slightly lower entrance barriers.  As it happens, Bezmozgis' family did settle in Canada.  While this novel is probably not drawn directly from his actual family and their experiences, their journey clearly inspired this book.  As an another aside, I know a family of Soviet Jews that first settled in Israel but eventually made their way to the U.S.  I suspect because they were willing to settle in Israel, their passage was expedited, and they may not have had to wait in Europe at all.

In any case, the novel is set entirely in Rome where this family (two brothers, their wives, some children and then their elderly parents) are waiting for passage to the US.  The mother has a cousin of sorts in Chicago and they are hoping that will be sufficient.  This was a time when the "Free World" was deliberately tweaking the nose of the U.S.S.R. and would accept almost all refugees from there.  However, there were still some hurdles, particularly for cases like the father, who had significant health issues and, furthermore, did not want to mouth the expected platitudes about how terrible life was under the Soviet regime, particularly as a Jew.  As it turns out, the father was a decorated Soviet war hero.  While he wasn't exactly ecstatic about living in the U.S.S.R., he would not have left, except that he realized how terrible his life would have been after his family left and he was suddenly tagged as a Jew (and his hero status would more or less be revoked).

As one might imagine, there is quite a bit of tension between the father and the two sons, as well as between the two sons (one is a bit of a dreamer and the other is much more driven).  Further complicating the picture is that the dreamer son's wife actually isn't Jewish at all but divorced her Russian husband and then married her current husband.  So she's kind of a double outsider.  Still, she seems marginally happier about her lot than most of the other characters.  The dreamer, who speaks a tiny bit of English, is given a job as a translator for other Soviet Jews arriving after him.  The more driven brother starts getting into somewhat shady deals that generally involve Jews that used to belong to the equivalent of the Russian Mob.  (These other characters have been identified as a problem and neither the U.S. nor Canada wants anything to do with them.) There is an interesting subplot of another Soviet Jew who did go to Israel, but found in its own way (military conscription) Israel felt too much like the U.S.S.R., and he was visiting Rome on a visa about to expire, trying to convince the Americans to take him, but not having much luck.

One of the crisis points arises when the family's cousin calls up and says that she had to sponsor another family, and presumably they would have to wait another year in Rome.  At this point (after the recriminations), they turn their attention to Canada.  But additional snags come up, as one might imagine.  I think I'll leave the plot there for those that do want to read the novel.

Overall, I thought Bezmozgis did a good job in showing these people out of their element in Rome and their very different takes on the situation, as well as their recollections on their past in the U.S.S.R.  While I didn't care for the crusty father (Samuel?) as a person, in the sense that I wouldn't want to interact with him, he was a very memorable character.  I thought I detected a few flashes of Lear here and there (the deposed king dealing with his difficult offspring), but perhaps it is just because I have had Lear on my mind a lot this past year.  He does get one scene towards the end of the book where he watches his grandchildren playing on the beach where he more or less is reconciled to this new path.  While it wasn't their first choice, it is interesting how Canada becomes a big part of their dreams of reaching the "Free World."  Anyway, Happy Canada Day!

Edit (3/25/2017): I don't know if the Jew in Rome who doesn't want to return to Israel is based on a real person that Bezmozgis or someone in his family met while in Rome, but there are some interesting parallels to Shimon Susskind, a character in Bernard Malamud's "The Last Mohican."  Incidentally, this story ends up both in The Magic Barrel and Pictures of Fidelman.  It's nice to imagine it is a bit of a homage to Malamud, though perhaps an accidental one.

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