The Free World

Tolstoy said great literature is reducible to one of two plot lines: a stranger comes to town or someone goes on a journey. David Bezmozgis has chosen the latter as the basis for his subtle, humorous debut novel, The Free World, a road exercise that focuses on several generations of a Latvian Jewish family who emigrate from the Soviet Union in 1978 and become refugees in Rome for the bulk of the story. Where they will end up—Canada? the United States? Australia? Israel? a cemetery in Rome? back in Latvia?—is the prevailing question that shadows the narrative by Bezmozgis, who last year The New Yorker named one of its "20 under 40" fiction writers to watch after the success of his short story collection Natasha.

 

Literary critic James Wood called that collection "passionately full of life." For its part, this debut novel merits a similar assessment, its cast of characters a panoply of seekers and sycophants, extroverts and introverts, impetuous types and those given to self-reflection.

 

The protagonist is Alec Krasnansky, a charming, handsome 26-year-old philanderer whose defining expression is "an inquisitive smile" and who is "always looking vaguely, childishly amused." Conversely, his older brother Karl is "square and sturdy."

Alec would see a circus and want to join; Karl, meanwhile, would estimate the cost of feeding the elephants and postulate that the acrobats suffered from venereal disease.

The narrative shifts often to accommodate the third-person point of views of several characters, among them Polina, Alec's 20-year-old wife, who left her first husband to marry Alec: "If only Maxim weren't so foolish, she'd said, she would have remained faithful to him, never taken up with Alec, and lived a regular, quiet life."

 

Polina had an abortion before the family emigrated from Latvia, a move that was supposed to facilitate their ease of travel but which shadows her conscious and makes her question her new marriage. Throughout the novel she sends and receives letters from her sister, who is back in Latvia and trying to determine whether to emigrate as well. Polina can offer little in the way of comfort or optimism.

 

"I couldn't even begin to list all the things I haven't understood about some of the people we've met," she writes.

 

The reader, too, is often flummoxed by the inactions—and in several cases, the lack of questioning—on the part of certain characters. When Alec is drawn into a shady, get-rich-quick scheme, the behavior of his accomplices is unexpected and brutal. Where other characters might have demanded an explanation, Alec basically shrugs his shoulders and accepts it as a facet of life. These blind spots are not a failing on the part of the author; they merely ask an involved reader to proffer his own take to fill in the gaps.

 

In Rome, the family lives among fellow refugees, some of them congenial and harmless, others more baleful. One of the helpful sort, a man named Lyova, represents the type who's been through this trial before. He rents a portion of his apartment to Alec and Polina, who both question how this former Soviet and Israeli tank driver can remain so upbeat, even as his wife and young son (whom he hasn't seen in a year) remain in Israel.

 

Lyova says, "I haven't yet given up on the idea that I'm a free man in the free world. I lived in Israel. I worked. I paid taxes. I served in the army. I repaid my debt. Now I'd like to try somewhere else. Why not?"

 

He, in short, possesses the world-weary wisdom at the heart of this engaging, adventurous novel.

April 21: " 'Pull' includes 'invitations to tea' at which one hears smiling reminders that a better life is available to people who stop talking about massacres..."

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