Book review – The Free World by David Bezmozgis

The Free World coverOften, I find fiction the best way to gain an insight into the human side of political events. In the case of The Free World by David Bezmozgis, it’s the exodus of Jews from Russia that’s explored, and the impact of this journey on the people who leave, as well as those who remain behind.

It’s 1978 and a train takes a family from Latvia to Vienna to Rome in search of a new life – the destination is less important than the act of departure itself. Alec and his wife Polina, his brother Karl, Karl’s wife Rosa, their sons and Alec and Karl’s parents Samuil and Emma, make up a hopeful, sometimes fearful, frequently exhausted and exasperated group of travellers among the huge volume of émigrés realising how different the rest of the world is to the place they left behind.

The point of view changes from chapter to chapter, offering you fresh opinions and perceptions of the city that is serving as their temporary home while they first try to choose their destination, and then struggle to attain the required visas.Each of the voices is distinctly different enough to ensure the inevitably you’ll find yourself liking some more than others, and I particularly warmed to Polina’s especially in the passages told through her letters to the younger sister she had to leave behind. In Polina’s eyes the whole thing takes on a rather poetic slants: “I can see into the window of an apartment where a bald Italian man is reading his newspaper and drinking his coffee. (…) There must be different Russians staring at him each month. In New York and Melbourne and Miami there are people from Leningrad and Baku and Kiev whose memories of Rome include this man drinking coffee. Now mine will too. Wherever I end up.”

The father of Alec and Karl, Samuil, presents an altogether different view of their retreat from the Soviet Union. Unlike his sons and their wives, he recalls life before the communist regime he and his family are now fleeing. Once an important man, in Rome he finds himself without status and purpose, and grows increasingly absorbed in writing his memoirs – giving him the excuse to life his days out deep in the past.

In one passage Samuil muses over the stray Soviet dogs  roaming Rome’s streets, “abandoned by oweners who’d flown off to Canada or America – who, afte going to considerable lengths to process and transport the animal from the Soviet Union to Italy, had finally been dissuaded from taking them any further.”

As he thinks about the “Great, once proud beasts” who “dragged themselves about with downcast eyes, begging for scraps”, it seems clear that Samuil, denied a Canadian visa due to his age and ill heath, is relating to the dogs on more than one level.

For me, Alex is the least likeable, though that in part is due to the gradual discovery of his youthful ignorance, and the realisation that Polina, though his wife, is not destined to be the great love of his life. As we discover how the pair came to leave Latvia together, it again seems to be the departure that’s the focus rather than the destination and their future there.

As Bezmozgis writes, “This was their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to slip the shackles of the Soviet Union.”

Alec’s indiscretions prove to be a symptom of the strain they’ve all been under, as he muses of his new fling: “With her, he was back on familiar ground. It was like Riga before the whole convoluted saga of the emigration. He’d seen a girl, become smitten, and pursued her. For the first time in a long time, the demands of emigration were peripheral.”

In fact, it sometimes feels like Bezmozgis’ main motivation in writing this novel was to explore the emotions connected with emigration. It could work as well set today, or in any time, with any group of people emigrating from anywhere to anywhere. It’s the dislocation that’s important, rather than the circumstances of it, and in that way Bezmozgis has written a book for our time and any time.

The Free World by David Bezmozgis is published by Penguin and buy from Amazon.

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