When you write about the migrant experience, it becomes very difficult to encompass everything in one single book, keeping the trail of thought intact. The Free World by David Bezmozgis is a perfect example of this. A lot of books about the immigrant experience have been written and it isn’t to write so. A part of the author’s life also goes into the book or else you cannot write about the immigrant life.
David Bezmozgis’s book is a unique take on displaced people, of a family that is nowhere and yet the whole world seems to encompass in this book through their eyes. The Free World is a story of a family of Soviet Jews, who were released in the 1960s and 70s (the Russian Jews could finally leave and find their own way in the world) and could not travel directly to Israel or to the US. They had to often stop over at Vienna or Rome to enter the so-called “Free World”. The stop was undecided. It could take days, weeks or months. Till then, families had no clue as to what was going to happen. The limbo existed.
The book opens in 1978 with the arrival of the Krasnansky family in Rome. The family like any other family has its own eccentricities. Each character propels the story forward from his or her way of fitting into the novel. The patriarch, Samuil – an old Communist and Red Army Veteran, who reluctantly leaves home, misses his old life and mulls over it again and again. The mother, Emma is constantly devoted to her family and accepts all decisions without as much a mutter. She is yet central to the theme. The eldest son, Karl, arrives with his wife and two sons. He finds a new way in his life: The Roman Underworld. The younger son, Alec, the womanizer is accompanied with his new bride Polina, who is as scandalous as ever.
The family struggle with themselves – making sense of why they left and what it feels like to be in a strange country, in transit, waiting to get to the free world. The title of the book speaks to the reader on various levels – from freedom (which in this case is elusive as the characters speak for themselves) to the idea of freedom. Bezmozgis’s characters are as real as you and I. The story is beyond a story of a family’s stay in Rome. The political friction is sensitively handled throughout the novel. David Bezmozgis has successfully managed to show us how the family got to where they are when the novel opens.
The writing is accessible. At no point, did I get bogged down reading the book or turning the pages over and over again for references. The other Russian Jews in the book are as endearing as the central family. Each character has his or her story to tell and that is what makes this book unique. There is a lot of history in the book. I for one would have to read more books to understand that perspective a little better. The entire Anti-Semitism, restrictions, deep rooted fears of Stalin and his successors, the dangerous paths for Jews applying for visas, and the ones that literally got away – all this needs to be understood a little more. I could not stop thinking about the characters once I finished the book. Bezmozgis is able to capture the story of a family – lost within itself and in the outside world beautifully. A must read.
Here are some excerpts:
“So far I’ve been a citizen of two utopias. Now I have modest expectations. Basically, I want the country with the fewest parades.”
“What does it matter to them where they were?” muses Samuil. “How were they different from the birds who landed in one place or another, unmoored by allegiances or souls.” In this land of limbo, the only true connection is not to homeland – past or present – but to each other.
At one point, Alec says, “The same borders you crossed to get here, you can cross in reverse. It needn’t be hard. For all we know, it might even be easier in reverse.”