Cancer Ward

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The Millions Interview: David Bezmozgis

The hero of David Bezmozgis’s first book, Natasha (2004), a slim collection of short stories, was a young Latvian Jewish immigrant growing up in 1980s Toronto.  Bezmozgis’s precise prose, inflected with a twice-removed shtetl comedy, played in the same keys as Malamud and Babel, though his subject was born well into the rock and roll era.  Some could read his book as part of the hipster canon, but it maintained in style and substance an Old World sensibility.  His new book, a humane, honest first novel, The Free World, starts a couple of years before the opening pages of Natasha, to tell a more expansive tale from one of the more recent and less commemorated Jewish migrations.  In 1978, three generations of the Krasansky family leave Riga to find themselves in Rome, which serves here as a kind of hot, stifling refugee purgatory.  They scramble to make life bearable while searching for passage to a new home somewhere in the West.  Their own recent pasts in the Soviet state are hardly past. Samuil, the patriarch, is a die-hard communist who has left the Party in disgrace.  His son Alec is a sexually-frustrated child of the Khrushchev thaw.

Bezmozgis’s own family migrated from Riga to Toronto when he was six.  He’s 38 now and still lives in Toronto, with his wife and two young daughters.  We met at the Fair Grounds Coffee Shop in Iowa City on May 2, where he was representing Canada on a PEN World Voices Festival Tour.  It was the second time we had spoken – I had interviewed him about Natasha in 2006 – though the first time we met in person.  The following is a pared-down version of our conversation.

The Millions: In reading your portraits of Riga in the ’70s and Rome in the ’70s, I felt I was reading portraits painted in similar colors.  Maybe it’s because we always imagine things very internally.  We may be here in Iowa City but your voice may not be all that different when you describe your time here from when you describe your time in Riga, Italy or Toronto.

David Bezmozgis I think, more than that, it’s a tonal thing. Which is to say that the tone of life for Alec, let’s say, or Karl, [his brother] and [his wife] Polina…weren’t that dark or depressing [in Riga]. They were young…It was the most Westernized part of the Soviet Union. They went to coffee houses. They could go to the theater. And that was actually part of what I hoped to convey in the book, which is that certain preconceptions about how drab and gray the Soviet Union was in the ’70s aren’t exactly true.  Particularly for people who were young and educated, life wasn’t that dismal. And I think by the time they get to Rome, they’re still the same people.

TM: Samuil’s past is so unrelentingly grim to me, from the 1920s to World War II. But there is a kind of humanity that is always pulling you through. He and his family are caught between Stalin and Hitler, and there’s really no place where they can go.

DB: Right, but they don’t consider themselves caught between Stalin and Hitler.

TM: But that’s part of the terror of the moment. They don’t realize what’s involved with Stalin, which leads Samuil to betray his cousin.  He’s part of a system that he doesn’t quite recognize as being pretty awful.

DB: True, but…for somebody like Samuil, Stalin is salvation. And even though there is that betrayal of his cousin, it’s not so much Stalin, it’s communism. Stalin didn’t force him to do it. It’s this revolutionary idea [that goes] back to Lenin. He’s caught between the tsar.  He’s caught between capitalism. Even before Hitler, before fascism, these are proletariats. These are words that we don’t use anymore…He finds that he suffers from the system, the capitalist system.

TM: But isn’t he forced into a constant rationalization?

DB: I think that it’s only rationalization if you don’t believe in it. When you talk about people who truly believe in God, and they encounter atheists, they don’t think of God from the perspective of the atheists.  They think of God from their perspective.  So I think that for Samuil, it’s not like he has in his mind some dissident mentality that he’s constantly arguing with.  He has a different mentality, that every now and then he feels incursions into, but I think, for him, he’s not quite as conflicted as you and I would think he should be.

TM: So he’s constantly worshipping a god that he doesn’t realize has failed that everyone around him realizes has.

DB: Not everyone, but a lot.  He still believes it is the better alternative. He truly believes it…

He believes he deserved to be kicked out of the party.  Had he disciplined his children better, had he been a better father to them, in the true ideological sense, they wouldn’t have betrayed him.  He feels himself to be implicated.

TM: So, to extend the metaphor, he becomes the Christian who must believe he is going to hell, otherwise his entire system of belief falls down upon him.

DB: Right, as with any orthodox believer. You don’t pick and choose from your religion.  You understand that these are the tenets of the faith.  And you don’t pick and choose what is convenient to you.

TM: So he’s a Dostoevskyan character, except he isn’t wrestling with a fundamentalist conception of God. He’s wrestling with a fundamentalist conception of communist ideology.

DB: I suppose. I wasn’t thinking in those terms. I was thinking in real terms of what I knew people of that generation to be like…I found a book, mostly transcripts, of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee Trial, Stalin’s trial, the secret trial.  There was this man named Solomon Lozovsky.  He said, This is illegal what you’re doing to me. You have proven nothing. I am a good communist. Despite what you’re saying, you are the ones who are the criminals here. You are the ones who are distorting communism. I am the one who stands for the communist ideal. And if I am mistaken, kill me. If I am not mistaken, after you’ve killed me, rehabilitate me.

He cares about his legacy in ideological terms.  He would accept death as a revolutionary.  The way he approaches it is that death is not a problem for the individual. He’s part of a larger, historical and political force. If you’re going to kill me as an individual, kill me if I’m wrong.  But if you discover later that you’re mistaken, you have to rehabilitate me.

TM: People forget that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn actually has a sense of humor. There’s a touch of humor that pokes through Cancer Ward. There’s a touch of humor that pokes through One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, as well. The characters are in this awful, bleak, cannibalistic atmosphere and they’re telling jokes about it. Alec and his brother Karl’s generation reminded me more of the characters in Milan Kundera’s The Joke. That’s a book filled with low-key humor. So were you thinking of this humor tradition of writers from communist countries when you sat down to write this book. I ask this because when we talked five years ago, you spoke of a tradition of Jewish humor that you were drinking from when you wrote the stories in Natasha. I was curious if you were looking at this other tradition when you were writing The Free World.

DB: I think, first of all, I’m the same writer. So writers have sensibilities and points-of-view. And I think I’m the writer that I am because of where I come from.  So I’d be surprised if the tone of any of my work was ever greatly different than Natasha or anything else.  It’s a worldview.  It’s a way of looking at the world.  And as far as being part of a tradition, of bringing Jewish humor into the work, it’s there because it reflects the experience of the people I know.  And it’s there because that’s the nature of Soviet life and Soviet Jewish life.  So it ends up in the book, inevitably.

I think the parts of Solzhenitsyn that are funny aren’t there because he artificially introduced them. They’re there because he’s trying to authentically replicate what life was like. And I’m trying to do the same.

As far as Kundera and that generation of people, like Alec and Karl, who came of age in the Khrushchev thaw, this communism thing is a joke by then. You couldn’t take it seriously, unless you were some kind of robot. And so if you can’t take it seriously, but you’re forced to live under it, you have no choice but to deride it, to make fun of it. Because they’re not stupid. So what are they supposed to do? They can’t leave. They can’t protest. So you live. You wink here. You nudge there. You make a joke there. Because it’s bizarre.

You know there’s humor in the Samuil [flashback scenes which cover the pogroms, the inter-war period and World War II], between him and his brother.  Because it’s true. Jews are funny. Because they’ve been forced to be funny. Because when you’re powerless and you can’t change anything and you’re not stupid, you have to make light of it in order to go on.

TM: So it’s a coincidence that you have taken on a tone similar to these other writers?

DB: It’s a coincidence, I guess. It has something to do with each individual sensibility. Kundera is not the same writer as Solzhenitsyn. Some people are funnier than others. So it has something to do with my own sensibility, my own peculiar humor, which is different than other writers’ humor. You can think of other Soviet writers and you can think of other post-Soviet writers. Gary Shteyngart writes differently. So it has something to do with how you’re wired. But it also has something to do with the world you’re writing about.

TM: There’s an anxiety a lot of writers feel about writing about the Holocaust. “What right do I have to say anything about the Holocaust?” Or “What right do I have to say anything about Stalinism?” I interviewed Cynthia Ozick years ago and despite the fact that she is the author of The Shawl she didn’t feel anyone who was not a survivor should use the Holocaust in a work of fiction. Because there is still so much that has been recorded that we still haven’t read yet. And, her argument went, we should be sitting down and reading these records or any kind of testimony that exists. That’s what we should be spending our time doing, not trying to weave stories or entertainments out of the history of the Holocaust. This was her claim. Did you have any of those anxieties or concerns when you sat down to write The Free World?

DB: Only to the extent that when there was actual violence, and there isn’t a lot of firsthand violence in the book.  There is one incident when Samuil’s father and grandfather are killed. If you’re not a firsthand witness to these things then to write a firsthand account of how it happens…I think I would say I share Cynthia Ozick’s concerns about that.  That’s why there isn’t a lot of violence in the book. But there’s a lot of the events that lead up to those moments and the events that follow on the heels of those moments. So [I do the scene] when Samuil and his brother want their mother to leave to evacuate Riga. But I certainly don’t do the scene which they can’t see of how their mother, their aunt, their uncle [and] their cousins are murdered by the Nazis because they’re gone by then.

[I]t’s true what Cynthia Ozick says about the Holocaust. What North Americans know of as the Holocaust is what happened in Poland and parts West.  They have a far more vague understanding – if any understanding at all – of what happened east of Poland.  So in that respect, I didn’t feel I was participating in some kind of redundancy. But rather, that I was rendering for primarily a Western audience stuff that is not that well known from the Soviet Union, though certainly better known now after the collapse of the Soviet state, as it was quite hidden even during the Soviet period.

TM: You are essentially saying that you are writing about the events that lead up to the fact, and then the experience, the memory, the trauma of what passed. I have my traumas. You have your traumas. Everyone has his traumas. But most of us do not have an experience on the level of the Holocaust. So when you try to get inside the head of Samuil – the way the synapses of his mind move between the past and the present – do you, as a novelist, find yourself grafting your own experience of what it’s like when bad memories from 30 years ago hit you at a completely different time and place in a strange way?

DB: Inevitably. You can’t think but with your own mind. But because I did so much research and read the autobiographies and the testimonials and the court transcripts of people of that generation, I also understood the difference to some degree of how those people thought when they crossed certain experiences. And so it was a combination of, yes, there is something universal about experiencing trauma. Then there’s also something contextual ideologically. You’re socialized in a certain way. You’re politicized in a way. You think differently. So it was a combination of those two things. So a reader would be able to identify mostly how Samuil feels, how he experiences loss, and even happiness. And also at the same time I think [he would] be struck by the places where his mentality diverges from what you and I would consider as typical or conventional ways of thinking and processing these things.  There’s a revolutionary mentality which we don’t have, because most people in North America aren’t wedded to a revolutionary ideal. They’re wedded to their family or themselves.

TM: Did you grow to love Latvia more as you wrote this book?

DB: I don’t think I grew to love Latvia more.

TM: Did you develop any kind of affection for it?

DB: I developed a deeper sense of melancholy about what history had wrought. My family’s roots go back multiple generations. I guess the feeling is that I regret what happened to Latvia. I regret where the country is now. I regret that there’s effectively very little Jewish communal life there. And it just seems sad to me…

My grandfather spoke Yiddish and he lived in a certain type of Latvia where he was raised in a traditional Jewish way. My parents no longer spoke Yiddish though they understood it. They spoke Russian. And their culture was Soviet culture.  And here I am now where my language is English. And my experience is a Western capitalist experience. And I think it’s sad. I think it’s unnatural when I look at Americans who have been living here for 150 years, 200 years.

We’re in Iowa now. “My great-grandmother’s house was here in Iowa. I have continued to live in this house or somewhere nearby. If you want to read great-grandma’s letters, well they’re written in the same language you speak now.” Culturally, the frame of reference is basically the same. You believe in the same god she believed in. But it’s not my case. The language my grandfather expressed himself most intimately in is a language I don’t speak. The language my parents expressed themselves most intimately in is a language my children won’t speak. So when you look back over generations it’s this alienation from generation to generation to generation. For my daughters – I have two of them now – my grandparents will seem so alien to them, which is so sad to me. And even my parents will seem alien to them, which is equally sad to me.

Holding a Vigil for a People’s History: an Appreciation of Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward

Stephanie Deutsch, a writer and critic living in Washington, D.C., was a first year graduate student in Soviet Union Area Studies at Harvard in 1970 when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. She had spent the previous year living in Moscow. This essay is an update of an appreciation written ten years ago for the Washington Times’s “Lost Word” column dedicated to second looks at classic works. Solzhenitsyn died on August 3rd at 89.My copy of Cancer Ward is a well-worn relic from the 1970s, when a paperback book cost $1.50 and Solzhenitsyn was the must-read author of the moment. He had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970 and when I bought the novel it had been through fifteen printings in three years. A quote on the back cover calls it “a literary event of the first magnitude… by Russia’s greatest living prose writer.”The book reprints the author’s 1967 letters to the Congress of Soviet Writers and the Union of Writers of the USSR complaining of the “no longer tolerable oppression, in the form of censorship, that our literature has endured for decades,” and insisting that his work “be published without delay.” Who could foresee then that when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died he would no longer be much read, either here or in his native land. The one-time Vermont recluse returned to Russia but there, as here, his fervor and his writing are out of fashion.Just as a voguish book can disappoint, though, Cancer Ward remains compelling. While the title hints at symbolism and death, the straightforward story is vibrantly and affirmatively about life. Mr. Solzhenitsyn does see cancer as a fitting metaphor for his society’s ghastly flaws, but he is also telling a literal story about physical illness. He himself was a survivor not just of front-line combat with the Red Army, Stalinist prison camps, forced labor and exile in his own country, but also of real illness. A recurrence of his rare stomach cancer was treated with radiation in the spring of 1954 at a hospital in Tashkent.This is where the novel brings together a lively cast of characters. The protagonist is Oleg Kostoglotov, a big, dark-haired man in his 30s, a former political prisoner and internal exile. He’s a land surveyor with unslakable curiosity about everything: “…although he’d never missed a chance to scoff at education in general, he’s always used his eyes and ears to pick up the smallest thing that might broaden his own.” He likes people, too, especially as he feels life returning after his near death and successful radiation therapy.Kostoglotov’s nemesis in the ward is Rusanov, a self-satisfied bureaucrat, a Party member whose life work has been in “personnel records administration… Only ignoramuses and uninformed outsiders were unaware what subtle, meticulous work it was… The actual direction life took was decided without loud publicity, calmly in quiet offices, by two or three people who understood one another, or by dulcet telephone calls. The stream of real life ran on in the secret papers that lay deep in the briefcases of Rusanov and his colleagues.” This work gives Rusanov an inflated sense of his own importance and caution and pettiness that are the opposite of Kostoglotov’s exuberant good nature.Ludmila Afanasyevena Dontsova is the head of the hospital’s radiology department, a brilliant clinician who hesitates to use her diagnostic skills on the pain she feels in her own stomach. We see her not just in the hospital but on her way home from work, grabbing a seat on a streetcar: “…the was the first thought apart from the hospital that began to transform her from an oracle of human destinies into a simple passenger on a trolley jostled like anyone else… At every stop and with every shop that flashed by the window, Ludmila Afanasyevna’s thought turned more and more to her housework and her home. Home was her responsibility and hers alone because what can you expect from men? Her husband and son, whenever she went to Moscow for a conference, would leave the dishes unwashed for a whole week. It wasn’t that they wanted to keep them for her to do, they just saw no sense in this repetitive, endlessly self-renewing work.”Kostoglotov’s life in prison and exile has kept him isolated from women for years so his joy at returning health is mingled with wonder at the chance to be with members of the opposite sex. He flirts wildly with the high-spirited night nurse, Zoya; he feels deep sympathy with Vera Gangart, one of his doctors. “For a man like Oleg, who had to be permanently suspicious and watchful, it was the greatest pleasure in the world to be able to trust, to give himself to trust. And he trusted this woman, this gentle, ethereal creature. He knew she’d move softly, thinking out her every action and that she wouldn’t make the slightest mistake.”And we meet the ward’s other patients – Dyomka, a teenager facing the amputation of his leg and trying to keep up with his literary studies; Asya, the yellow-haired girl desolate about impending surgery for breast cancer; Vadim, an engineer so absorbed in his work he had no time for illness; Chaly, suffering from acute stomach cancer but cheerfully sharing with Rusanov his feast of illicit pickles and vodka.Solzhenitsyn gives a full and sympathetic picture of these characters, revealing each one’s inner reality – loneliness, marital happiness, eagerness for life, fear of death. Like others of the best Russian novels, Cancer Ward bursts with conversations. Some are timely still – about alternative cancer cures from roots and herbs and the influence of one’s mental state on the healing process; about the difficulties of achieving free national health service and yet providing patients with sufficient personal attention; and about what of honor or self-respect or bodily function one is willing to sacrifice to stay alive.The heavy atmosphere of the totalitarian Soviet Union is brilliantly rendered and, in my tattered edition, numerous footnotes clarify allusions that might be lost on a reader without a detailed knowledge of the time. When Kostoglotov talks to Zoya he has to explain to her that he is a Russian and was exiled on a trumped-up charge of treason. “Note: A number of small nationalities – Volga Germans, Chechens, Kalmucks and others – were deported en masse to Central Asia during and after the second world war, suspected of collaborating with the Nazis. These were called ‘exiled settlers.’ ‘Administrative exiles,’ like Kostoglotov, were usually political prisoners who had served their term in a labor camp but still had to live in a remote region of the country.”This novel is constructed around these and other historical truths too ghastly to be believed and, in our country, in some danger of being forgotten. When Kostoglotov begins to suspect that political changes may be coming in his country he thinks, “A man dies from a tumor, so how can a country survive with growths like labor camps and exiles?” As it turned out, this one could not; the system that produced the camps is gone. Solzhenitsyn’s story, brilliantly mixing fact and fiction, tells us just how sick the patient actually was.With his prophet-like appearance and cantankerous public persona, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn will surely be remembered for his determined truth-telling. By keeping the details of Soviet history alive, his extraordinary literary oeuvre may help guard against the recurrence that with cancer can never be fully ruled out. But Solzhenitsyn deserves to be remembered, as well, as a novelist to put on the shelf next to Gogol and Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pasternak, a writer to be re-read and savored for the way he translates messy, often ghastly human experience into brilliant, clarifying prose.

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