From Latvia, With Ambiguity

David Bezmozgis, whose first novel is just out, reflects on the nature of ideologies like Communism and Zionism.

04/05/2011
Staff Writer
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The story of the refuseniks is a heroic one. Thousands of Soviet Jews risked their lives, facing imprisonment or worse, so they could live openly as Jews.

When the Communist government finally permitted Jews to emigrate en masse, beginning in the late-1970s, the face of modern Jewish life changed decisively — many Soviet Jews, staunch Zionists, for instance, moved to Israel, transforming the state’s politics in the process.

But many did not go to Israel, choosing instead to go where life seemed easier: the United States, Australia and Canada. Among them was the family of David Bezmozgis, 37, one of America’s most noted young novelists. One of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list of up-and-coming fiction writers last year, and the author of a widely praised collection of short stories, “Natasha and Other Stories,” in 2004, Bezmozgis released his highly praised debut novel last month.

“The Free World” is, indeed, focused on a family of Soviet Jews, but there is nothing heroic about their tale. They have been allowed to escape the Soviet Union because they are Jewish, but their attitude toward their religion can be characterized as conflicted bemusement at best; towards Israel, they feel no different. It is 1978 and they are in Rome, waiting to arrive at their final destination. They simply want freedom, to live and be as they choose.

“This story hasn’t been told because it’s not a glamorous story,” said Bezmozgis, over coffee at a café near the New York Public Library, where he finishing up his year as a Dorothy and Lewis M. Cullman Fellow. “The heroic story is the one of the people who were imprisoned and were then finally allowed to go to Israel. But that’s not what most Soviet Jews did.”

Many Jews benefited from the refuseniks’ courage, he said. But the refuseniks’ efforts are “the story of the heroic minority. … This book, which is a novel of course, tells the story of everyone else.” He added, “The reality is that many Jews who moved to Israel were disappointed, then left. [And then] there were Jews who didn’t migrate to Israel either,” noting that they went straight to places like America, Australia and Canada instead.

They included Bezmozgis’ own family, which left Riga, Latvia, for Toronto in 1980. Much like the fictitious Krasnansky family at the center of “The Free World,” the Bezmozgis stayed for half a year in Rome awaiting their final visas. While the novel is not autobiographical, Bezmozgis said that part of his goal was to paint an accurate picture of Soviet Jewish émigrés as he actually knows them. “They’re just ordinary people,” he said.

Which is not to say that what Soviet Jews experienced was normal. At least in his novel, Bezmozgis’ Jewish characters face many harrowing choices.

In one instance, the patriarch of the Krasnansky family, Samuil, recalls the moment the Soviet army occupied Latvia. A faithful Communist his entire life, Samuil embraces the invading army. But not long after the Soviets arrive, they begin rounding up Zionists, among other competing ideologues, for deportation. Samuil and his brother Reuven, also a Communist, must decide whether to help their cousin Yaakov, an ardent Zionist, escape.

Despite Yaakov’s parents’ pleading for their help, Yaakov tells his cousins it’s no use, relieving them of their burden: “What’s the point in making a fuss?” Yaakov says to his family. “This is the nature of our times. Samuil and Reuven bet on one horse. I bet on another. My horse lost.”

Bezmozgis cautions against looking for parallels between the Krasnanskys’ experience and his own. Despite the novel’s occasional glimpses of harsh repression, he said that his family’s travails in Latvia were often less stark. On the whole, he said, the picture of widespread grave persecution of Soviet Jews is inaccurate.

“What most Americans don’t understand is that this wasn’t Nazi Germany, and it wasn’t imperial Russia. That sort of rabid anti-Semitism didn’t really exist. It was systemic; there were things like quotas,” he said. “You knew there were certain universities you couldn’t apply to. But having said that, there were exceptions.”

He gave a few examples, however, of what Jewish life in Soviet Latvia was like from his own childhood. “On Pesach, we’d celebrate and have to close the curtains. On Rosh HaShanah, we’d do the same thing,” he said. In fact, on all the Jewish holidays, Bezmozgis remembers his parents telling him that they were only celebrating his grandfather’s birthday. “So my grandfather had four or five birthdays a year,” he said, pausing, “God forbid, I would say something in kindergarten and get everyone in trouble.”

When the Bezmozgis arrived in Toronto in 1980, they sent David, then 7, to a Hebrew day school. “They wanted me to have the kind of education I couldn’t have in the Soviet Union,” he said, noting that it was illegal to teach Hebrew or Yiddish in the Soviet Union, and many synagogues were closed.

But his teenage and young adult years were mostly those of a normal, middle-class Jewish kid. After Hebrew day school, he went to McGill University, where he majored in English literature, then onto Los Angeles, for a master’s degree in film at the University of Southern California.

His first ambition was to be a filmmaker, and many of the scripts he wrote years ago had Jewish themes. There was one about a Jewish boy who finds a photograph of an old Jewish couple, taken before they were killed in the Holocaust. Soon, he starts believing the photograph is of his own grandparents.

Then there was a comic documentary, titled “L.A. Mohel,” which followed three Jewish circumcisers, including “the Mohel to the Stars.” After winning a student award at USC, the film was screened at Jewish film festivals throughout the country.

Bezmozgis still writes for film, his latest being a screenplay for “Victoria Day,” which had its premiere at Sundance in 2009. His segue into the literary world, however, began when he met the Jewish writer Leonard Michaels years ago, back in California.

Something of a writer’s writer — Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff both cited Michaels as a key influence — Bezmozgis called him up when he wanted to make a screenplay based on one of his stories.

“It never got produced,” Bezmozgis’ said of the film, but it led to a fruitful friendship. “What attracted me to him was a shared set of interests. Here was a secular person who exhibited a respect for Jewish history. He was engaged and fascinated by the role of the Jewish man in the world.”

Michaels introduced Bezmozgis to Wyatt Mason, an accomplished critic and currently a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. The two became friends, and “over the years, we’ve always shot manuscripts back and forth,” said Mason.

Commenting on Bezmozgis’ penchant for writing about Jewish immigrants — a well-worn trope of American Jewish fiction — Mason said, “What makes David a distinctive novelist is not what he writes about, but how. … He has the ability, in lucid, lyrical language, to re-invent the world, sentence by sentence.”

Mason then connected Bezmozgis to Lorin Stein, an influential editor then at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and recently named editor in chief of The Paris Review. Not long after meeting Stein, Bezmozgis signed a book contract with FSG for “Natasha and Other Stories.” The collection became a Times Notable Book in 2004, an Amazon.com Top 10 Book, and winner of numerous debut fiction awards.

When asked if his recent selection to The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list might expose Bezmozgis to an even larger audience, Bezmozgis’ current editor at FSG, Eric Chinski, who is also the publisher’s editor in chief, said: “Clearly, that selection of writers has created a lot of attention. But my impression was that there were a lot fans from ‘Natasha.’” What most impressed him about Bezmozgis’ novel, he said, was how it “can telescope really large, historical themes through more intimate human relationships.”

The reviews have already started to trickle in for “The Free World.” It won strong praise in The Times’ Sunday Book Review, particularly for refusing to indulge any of the character’s sentimental illusions — Samuil’s fealty to Communism, for instance, or many of the characters’ romance with Zionism — yet still not lose its heart. The Wall Street Journal disagreed, saying that Bezmozgis was too critical of his characters, “constantly compelling them to undergo ironic humiliations.”

Bezmozgis said that insofar as his novel offers a commentary on political ideologies, he did not want to suggest that none were worth fighting for. “It’s not an attack on any one idea,” he said. “It’s a full portrayal of what these ideals amount to in reality. Communism is a wonderful idea in theory; it just didn’t work out so well. Zionism, if you’re Jewish, is a wonderful idea; it just hasn’t worked in practice so well either.”

Bezmozgis exhibits the same kind of skepticism in “The Free World.” In one poignant scene near the novel’s end, Samuil attends a nostalgic party for aging Communist Jews at their makeshift community center in Rome — “a traveling museum of a lost kind: Russian Jewish Communists,” Bezmozgis writes, “unlikely survivors of repeat appointments with death.”

A rabbi finds his way in, and tries to dissuade Samuil from the Communist cause. “If you had applied the strength of your convictions to the torah, I don’t doubt that you could have been a great rabbi today,” the rabbi says.

“Nonsense,” Samuil replies. “Had I applied myself to your torah, I would not be here today. The NKVD would have put me on a train, or the Germans in a pit.”

“All the more reason to return now to the torah. Wouldn’t you say? Out of respect for our martyrs?”

“There were many kinds of martyrs,” Samuil says, ending the conversation. “You honor yours; I’ll honor mine.”

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