Having loved his 2014 book The Betrayers, I was happy to find David Bezmozgis had an earlier novel. This one tells the stories of two generations of a Jewish family from Latvia. The moment at hand is their time in 1978 as they and others have been allowed to leave the Soviet bloc and have made it as far as Rome on their way to a permanent location. Though we hear the story and thoughts of several characters, Alec is the main focus. He is described by his wife Polina as childlike and in contrast to her sister, his childishness seemed to protect him from the world whereas her sister’s seemed to expose her. His charming whimsy convinced Polina to leave her husband, her beloved sister and parents and join his family in looking for a new life.
Alec’s brother Karl is the ruthless and practical one who manages everyone. His wife Rosa is notable in that she alone wants to go to Israel, while the others prefer the US, Canada, or Australia. But it is Samuil their father whose presence limits their options. He didn’t want to come as he had been an ardent Communist since his teenage years and had been powerful and successful in Riga. His Jewish roots became displaced during the time after the Russian Revolution when the White army killed his father. The complications of those years are shown by the story of his uncle who “fought with the tsar against the Germans, then with the Germans against the Bolsheviks, and then with the Latvians against the Germans again.” He explains, “I fought with the tsar because I was young and foolish. I fought with the Germans because the Bolsheviks tried to close the shops and the synagogues. And I fought with the Latvians because the Germans wouldn’t leave.”
In this book about the various displacements and upheavals in the lives of this family, comes Polina’s thoughts written to her sister about the value of order and routine. In Rome she took a job with a modest salary in a shop that sells leather goods. Alec thinks it’s foolish for her to do that rather than exploring the splendors of Rome. She says, “But it’s hard to explain to him that I miss order and I miss routine. For that I am prepared to forgo splendors.” She was grateful that when she woke up each morning, she would have someplace to go.
Alec and Polina take up an offer to share an apartment with a man named Lyova who had left Latvia years before with his family. They lived in Israel for years, but he left his wife and family to return to Rome in order to try to gain admittance for the family to another country. When Samuil tells Lyova that what he seeks doesn’t exist, Lyova explains, “I’m not looking for perfection. So far I’ve been a citizen of two utopias. Now I have modest expectations. Basically, I want the country with the fewest parades.”
The dramas, great and modest, in the lives of this family are captured in the portrayals of their lives during that year. One wonders how much is autobiographical as David Bezmozgis was born in Riga, Latvia in 1973. Perhaps that helps explain why the characters are so real.
David Bezmozgis, The Free World, Farrar. Straus and Giroux, 2011, 354 pages. Available in the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.