Emigration is not unlike love: its true course never did run smooth. You envision the free world filled with beauty and wonder, and then you see it, the West, and it is lovely, yes, tantalizing, but also cruel, withholding, a stern, ingrate mistress, possessed of a stony heart, an unyielding temperament. Even near, this free world is ever out of reach, just beyond your grasp. In this way, The Free World, David Bezmozgis’s first novel, which depicts the late-Seventies’ exodus of Soviet Jews and their first forays into the world of the title, is first and foremost a story of unrequited, even doomed love, a testament to a passion at once thrilling and damning and impossible to fulfill.
Bezmozgis has already proved himself a poet of the immigrant experience, ever attuned to its star-crossed-lovers dimension. In Natasha, his much-acclaimed (and deservedly so) collection of stories, he charted the disappointments attendant on realizing the dream of escape beyond the Iron Curtain, acutely observed the crushing weight of freedom. Now, in this new novel, he hones in on the first exposure to the West and the moment it ceases to captivate and its hold on the immigrant’s imagination begins to chafe. The problem, as far as his narrators live it anyway, is that freedom—political freedom, social freedom, personal freedom—does not actually free you from yourself. The escape is always mostly geographical and maddeningly superficial. Oh, sure, the surface is nice, the perks are good: one character in The Free World, watching porn for the first time, suddenly “grasp[s] the full extent of Soviet deprivation.” “If Russian men were surly, belligerent alcoholics,” he realizes, “it was because, in place of natural, healthy forms of relaxation, they were given newspaper accounts of hero-worker dairy maids receiving medals for milk production.” So the Free World is not without its enticements.
But these enticements have a price, and it is this price that fascinates Bezmozgis. In this, he is, of course, hardly alone among chroniclers of the immigrant experience, and The Free World is not inconsistent with the storied tradition of the immigrant novel. But Bezmozgis does offer an interesting departure in shifting the focus: his concern is with neither departure nor arrival but the in-between space, the often prolonged sojourn some Soviet immigrants were forced to take in Italy, which served as a way-station between their former homes and their yet-to-be-settled-on new ones. (Largely because the destination on their exit visa was Israel, though few wanted to go there—a country, pre-peace-treaty-with-Egypt, ever on the verge of war—a number of the emigrants wound up in Italy, awaiting permission to enter the US, Canada, or Australia, sometimes for many months at a time.) The Free World devotes itself to examining this in-between, mining the tension and anxiety inherent to limbo. Our entrance point to this particular circle is the Krasnansky family: Samuil and Emma, their son Alec and his wife Polina, and another son, Karl, along with his wife Rosa and their two young boys, and The Free World is divided among three perspectives—Alec, Polina, and Samuil’s.
The Krasnanskys have left Riga, Latvia, with vastly different motivations, expectations, and goals; they disagree about where they should go and about how to get there, and these disagreements quickly solidify, under the pressures of their uncertain existence, into resentments, and each Krasnansky responds by becoming more and more him- or herself. Samuil, an ideologically committed Communist, who resents his restlessly ambitious sons for deciding to try their luck in the West and making it impossible for him to remain in Riga, takes to working on his memoirs, retreating into his past in order to hold on to the dignity the immigration agencies seem determined to take away. Karl, always a wheeler and dealer, becomes involved in an auto-shop of questionable legality. Alec, with a tendency towards shiftlessness and a penchant for womanizing, finds himself working at an agency for his fellow immigrants, helpless to stave off the temptation of women, while his wife Polina feels herself increasingly alienated from her husbands’ family, to which she has always been an outsider. The Kransnanskys may be free of Soviet authority, Bezmozgis seems to be saying, but they are not free of each other. They are not free of the terrible burdens of the family and the self and the histories that keep them ever tethered to identities they long to discard.
This might make the novel sound far more ponderous than it is. The Free World is often a funny book, its observations finely drawn and frequently amusing, its vision of the characters clear-eyed but generous. It is also a sincere book, less antic and perhaps more insightful than the work of Gary Shteyngart, a fellow chronicler of the Soviet-immigrant-in-the-West and co-inductee of the “20 Under 40” New Yorker list. With this novel, Bezmozgis makes clear that the beauty of the stories collected in Natasha was no fluke and that his talent is immense. In The Free World, he offers up something at once familiar and fresh, at once comforting and discomfiting. There is finally no such thing as the free world, and this makes us suffer, but our literature is all the finer for it.