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David Bezmozgis
Annabel Reyes


by Elaine Bigalow, posted January 7, 2012

David Bezmozgis spoke about his latest book “The Free World” released in 2011 and read passages at the Tarbut Festival of Jewish Culture at the Rady Centre Sunday, November 18th. Charlene Diehl , writer, editor, and Director of Thin Air Winnipeg Annual Literary Festival moderated the question answer period.

Bezmozgis, a Torontonian writer and film maker, whose “The Free World”, won the New York Times Notable Book of the Year, the First Novel Award, the Canadian Jewish Book Award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and was selected for the Globe and Mail’s “Very Best of 2011” list, was born in Riga, Latvia in 1973.

The book, set in Rome in the summer of 1978, is about the Krasnanskys, a family of Soviet Jews who leave the Soviet Union and travel, planning to go somewhere to the West in the free world. They are not sure where they will end up until they secure visas for news lives in the West. The family is made up of Samuil, the Patriarch, lifelong communist and Red Army soldier who served during WWII, his wife Emma who returned to her Jewish roots , son Karl and wife Rosa , son Alex and wife Polina , a non- Jew who left her family behind, and their children. At that time, the only people to legally leave the country were Jews thanks to the help of a global protest movement for liberation of Jews. More than 2 million Jews eventually left the USSR immigrating to all parts of the globe.

When Diehl asked if he had a favorite character, Bezmozgis answered, “Samuil, because I felt emotionally closest to him because I was sympathetic to the circumstances that he had to choose.” Samuil is a record of a time and place, the Soviet Union, which is no longer. The Soviet person is no longer. He said Samuil as a Jew from the Pale Settlement grew up in a Yiddish speaking world, and “that was the world my grandfather came from. I have a sort of nostalgic slightly melancholy connection to the man.”

Bezmozgis is a product of that Jewish Diaspora. The book, spanning Russian history from 1930 to 1976, required extensive research. Bezmozgis travelled to Rome for four months with his then girlfriend, now wife, Hannah to research the history of lives of émigrés living in Italy in that period. Bezmozgis also relied on family friends and émigrés, to provide the detail for the book.

At the Tarbut Festival, Bezmozgis read selections that framed the setting and gave insight into his family of characters. As he outlined, preparation was the same for all Jews who left the USSR. Papers had to be notarized, valuables appraised, custom duffle bags sewn and shipping boxes constructed. Those who wanted to take valuables had to be creative so that money or jewelry would not be confiscated by customs agents. There were clandestine farewells with family and friends whom they were sure they would never see

The Krasnansky family’s first stop was Vienna where people parted from the group according to destination, those going to Israel and those going to somewhere in the Free World. Those not going to Israel went to Italy where they could secure visas for new lives in the West.

As Bezmozgis stated, “For a period of two decades on and off there were 100,000 Soviet Jews living in Rome. Some were eager to embrace their adventure and freedom away from Russia. Others were reluctant to leave the only country he had known all their lives”

Diehl noted she was particularly moved by literal facts and the narrative richness of a group of people who were in transit and were kind of stuck in between spaces, “where they are trying to make a life in a place they will not stay and they know it.”

Bezmozgis said “Soviet Jews living in Rome was nothing to be romantically idealized. They had no money, they did not know where they were going, and they felt threatened by all sorts of things including other immigrants. There was a whole criminal element which were preying on them.”

Diehl asked Bezmozgis “What was compelling about writing the three voices, putting together the characters of Alex Polina and Samuil?”  

Bezmozgis replied, “The book was about writing the story of Soviet Jews of the 20th century of whose experiences were not known to many people aside from a few stereotypical renditions of the time. What I wanted to put together was a family that was representative of what Jewish émigrés experienced.”

The character Samuil is pretty serious, somber, because of a generation who went through great trauma. Alec is a much lighter person, does not take life very seriously, spurns communism, generally makes the best of a situation, is promiscuous and lives on a different plane. Bezmozgis says there are a lot of men like that from that generation.

Bezmozgis said he also wanted to write about women, and family whose spouses were not all Jewish because there was a small number of families like that who emigrated.

Bezmozgis said of his Krasnansky family, that people who had such different ideas of who they were,  makes for a very dramatic family dynamic . He said this was fairly representative of a lot of the Soviet families of the time because of the generational span. Samuil lived through experiences of pre and post communism.Hiss experience was that, although it was not perfect, communism was the best thing for Russians. Alec who was born into communism was rigorously anti communist.

As Bezmozgis said of Karl, “Karl the oldest son was a real capitalist and would have been an oligarch had he stayed in the Soviet Union for 10 more years.”

He said, within families people disagree a lot -- this was evident in the book, Bezmozgis said this was a cultural aspect, as well people were under such stress and conflict during this period when they were waiting to get visas, first to America in the Krasnansky case, and when that fell through, to Canada. The stress of worrying that one in the family might not be admitted because of medical requirements kept people waiting for visas longer than others because they would not leave one member behind. How stressful and heartbreaking this must have been for so many who wanted to emigrate.

One of the characters in the book, Josef Roidman, even went to the Vatican trying to speak to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau attending the inauguration of Pope Paul the I. Roidman was a Red Army soldier who had lost a leg wanted to prove to the PM that he would be a valid contributor to Canadian society and should be admitted as an immigrant even though he was handicapped.

Bezmozgis brings to life how émigrés survived while waiting for their papers and passages to somewhere in “The Free World”, some for as long as 6 years. They found jobs and for a while supplemented by what they brought with them. In the description of The Market, readers are brought there instantly, walk with shoppers browsing the tables and live emotions of the sellers promoting an item and barking the wares brought with them from Russia.

Bezmozgis’s rendering shows the immense sacrifice of a people leaving the familiar, families and friends when coming to a country totally foreign to them in language, customs, laws and idioms.

Bezmzgis’s first book, Nathasha and Other Stories, won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Canada and Caribbean Region) and the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish fiction, the New York Times Notable Book of the year and a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award.

His first feature film, Victoria Day, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, and in 2010, he was named one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40.”

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