Immigrant City by David Bezmozgis


The Shadow Giller Prize Jury is back in business now that the shortlist has been announced and I am happy to see David Bezmozgis is on the shortlist. I loved the two of his other books that I have read. His work reflects his background:  he is a Jewish Latvian who arrived in Canada in 1979 when he was a child.

This collection of short stories is sometimes told by a narrator who seems to be the author; sometimes the stories are told by the omniscient viewer. The stories vary considerably in length:  some are very short, two are quite long. To my mind they all beg to be developed into books, each one looks so promising.

In the first story you know you are in the hands of a storyteller when he tells about damaging the car when backing out of a tight parking spot. The sound was “of self-recrimination, dolour and incalculable expense.”  He goes on to say,

In the aftermath I called my wife, who was born in America and raised in mindless California abundance. For her family, scratching cars and misplacing wallets was like a hobby. I, on the other hand, had been an immigrant child, with all the heartache and superiority that conferred. We ate spotted fruit.

In another the narrator meets a woman his grandfather had known when he visited the Latvian Center which he did frequently as an elderly widower without telling his family. Both the narrator and the woman had been born in Riga, although a half century apart. This passage describes a heart-rending silent moment between them:

She’d last seen it [Riga] in 1944, when she’d fled with her parents. I volunteered that I’d left with my parents in 1979. I’d imagined that from my grandfather’s name and physiognomy, she would have deduced he was a Jew, but her reaction led me to wonder. Maybe she’d known and forgotten? In any event, the little yellow pilot light did not come on. We smiled at each other as we each performed the sordid calculations. Innumerable faces, voices and landscapes swirled in the silence between us. Boxcars rolled to the east and west. A commissar and an SS officer shouted orders in a hoarse voice. A crow landed on a corpse.

And then the perfect recounting of life at home for this man:

At home I was drawn into the eddies of our evening ritual. There were grievances to adjudicate and half-hearted punishments to mete out. There was bargaining and cajoling over math homework and piano practice, interspersed with earnest and playful affections. There was fitful conversation, dinner, dishes, toilet and bedtime. All the while, looking at the faces of my wife and children, I felt the attenuated weight of my grandfather’s secret.

The two longer stories are wildly different from those I’ve recounted here. One describes a man’s travel to Latvia on a mission reminiscent of a Kafka story, another describes a Russian who had been a “contender” as a young boxer in Russia who finds himself an illegal immigrant in Canada working as a bouncer.

Such a pleasure to read more from this amazing writer.

David Bezmozgis, Immigrant City, HarperCollins, 2019, 224 pages. Available at the UVa library and from Amazon (I read the Kindle version).

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