With his first novel, a story of dislocation and yearning for both the old and the new, David Bezmozgis fulfills the promise he displayed in his 2005 collection, Natasha and Other Stories, and joins the growing list of talented young writers like Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapynar portraying the experience of Jewish emigration from the former Soviet Union.
Set in 1978, just as the first wave of departures was about to crest, The Free World tells the story of five months in the lives of three generations of the Krasnanskys, of Riga, Latvia, as they await their relocation from Rome to a new permanent home. The patriarch, Samuil, is an imperious former bureaucrat and World War II veteran of the Red Army who resents the circumstances that brought about the family’s departure, while his sons, Karl and Alec, quickly adapt themselves to the vagaries of Western capitalism, sometimes in less than savory ways. Despite their Jewish heritage, none of the Krasnanskys is motivated by a passion for their religion or its culture, and the notion of settling in Israel is unthinkable to them.
What Bezmozgis, himself a Latvian emigrant to Canada at age six, captures best is the sense of rootlessness that afflicts the Krasnanskys, each in unique ways. Samuil dwells on memories of his brother, killed in the war, while Alec’s wife Polina carries on a moving correspondence with her sister, who has remained behind. In Rome, they and the rest of the family join the mass of immigrants passing interminable hours in overheated waiting rooms at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or waiting for their turn at the pay phone to call North American relatives they hope will extend the invitation that will pave the way for an early departure from their Italian limbo.
Though one of his characters dismisses the Krasnanskys’ lot as the search to find “a happier miserable,” Bezmozgis understands that the yearning for freedom is a universal human desire. In his portrayal of one unremarkable, but decidedly sympathetic family, he’s produced an appealing portrait of that longing.