Seven years ago, I bought a plane ticket to somewhere new, packed 20 kilos of clothes and a laptop, and left the country. Just like that, I became an emigrant, met another one, and now our children are first-generation Brits (even though none of their multiple passports are British ones just yet). What makes for a good story to tell your grandchildren was really just a mix of boredom with the motherland and ample opportunities for EU citizens to live, work and produce offspring wherever they like. We take the children to see their grandparents several times a year, and the two-hour direct flight home must seem like a joke to most Americans, who would probably not even make it halfway through their state in that time.
In The Free World, David Bezmozgis’ novel of Soviet emigrants stuck in transit in the late 1970s, emigration is a whole different kettle of fish. For the Krasnansky family and the thousand more Soviet Jews, it means leaving your family behind forever, not knowing where you’re going to end up or which of your possessions to hang on to. After the strains of the journey out of the Soviet Union, their sponsor in the US lets them down, and they are stranded in Rome, at the mercy of the American and Canadian embassies and Jewish aid organisations. While brothers Alec and Karl, the middle-aged driving forces behind their family’s journey, make the best of their enforced stay in Italy, finding work and making friends, their parents and wives seem less adaptable. Soon, the novel’s plot takes on several more layers, in which the reader pieces together the stories of Alec’s quiet wife Polina and his father Samuil. His past paints a bleak picture of Jewish life in the 20th century. After witnessing his father’s assasination in rural Ukraine, Samuil flees to Latvia with his mother and brother. There, the two boys quickly turn to Communism, which eventually helps them survive when other family members are killed. Samuil stays a Communist and struggles with his sons’ decision to leave the Soviet Union with the help of Zionist organisations. Bezmozgis’ writing depicts the horrors of the repeated pogroms that frame Samuil’s life in very short, matter-of-fact descriptions. It is left to the reader to visualise the realities of Jewish life in the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the author supplies a counterbalance in several minor characters who paint an equally depressing picture of Zionism and Israel. Without having to delve into politics, the reader realises that as with most things in life, there are two sides to every story, and lots and lots of shades of grey. While the novel could serve as a starting point for lengthy discussions about Zionism and Jewish history, it doesn’t have to. For the purpose of the story, it provides just enough information.
The Free World is Bezmozgis’ first novel, and even without knowing that the author’s own life is mirrored in the storyline, it feels like a story that carries a lot of history and personal importance. It doesn’t aspire to become one of the big European family sagas and deliberately spans a short amount of time, with the underlying histories slowly coming together chapter by chapter. The ending seems hurried and strangely open, but then again that’s just what the Krasnansky’s Italian intermezzo is.
I don’t think people were meant to live like this, Polina said.
Like what? Alec asked [...]
To form attachments only to have them broken.
For me, the transition from one life to another has been neat, and in almost all respects I’ve managed to gain rather than lose. It’s sobering to be reminded that I’ve been one of the lucky ones.