Tolstoy said great literature is reducibleto one of two plot lines: a stranger comes to town or someone goes on ajourney. 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 LatvianJewish family who emigrate from the Soviet Union in 1978 and become refugees inRome for the bulk of the story. Where they will end up—Canada? the UnitedStates? Australia? Israel? a cemetery in Rome? back in Latvia?—is theprevailing question that shadows the narrative by Bezmozgis, who last year The New Yorker named one of its “20under 40” fiction writers to watch after the success of his short storycollection Natasha.
Literary critic James Wood called thatcollection “passionately full of life.” For its part, this debutnovel merits a similar assessment, its cast of characters a panoply of seekersand sycophants, extroverts and introverts, impetuous types and those given toself-reflection.
The protagonist is Alec Krasnansky, acharming, handsome 26-year-old philanderer whose defining expression is “aninquisitive smile” and who is “always looking vaguely, childishlyamused.” Conversely, his older brother Karl is “square and sturdy.”
Alec would seea circus and want to join; Karl, meanwhile, would estimate the cost of feedingthe elephants and postulate that the acrobats suffered from venereal disease.
The narrative shifts often to accommodatethe third-person point of views of several characters, among them Polina, Alec’s20-year-old wife, who left her first husband to marry Alec: “If only Maximweren’t so foolish, she’d said, she would have remained faithful to him, nevertaken up with Alec, and lived a regular, quiet life.”
Polina had an abortion before the familyemigrated from Latvia, a move that was supposed to facilitate their ease oftravel but which shadows her conscious and makes her question her new marriage.Throughout the novel she sends and receives letters from her sister, who isback in Latvia and trying to determine whether to emigrate as well. Polina canoffer little in the way of comfort or optimism.
“I couldn’t even begin to list allthe things I haven’t understood about some of the people we’ve met,” shewrites.
The reader, too, is often flummoxed by theinactions—and in several cases, the lack of questioning—on the part of certaincharacters. When Alec is drawn into a shady, get-rich-quick scheme, thebehavior of his accomplices is unexpected and brutal. Where other charactersmight have demanded an explanation, Alec basically shrugs his shoulders andaccepts it as a facet of life. These blind spots are not a failing on the partof the author; they merely ask an involved reader to proffer his own take tofill in the gaps.
In Rome, the family lives among fellowrefugees, some of them congenial and harmless, others more baleful. One of thehelpful sort, a man named Lyova, represents the type who’s been through thistrial before. He rents a portion of his apartment to Alec and Polina, who bothquestion 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 inIsrael.
Lyova says, “I haven’t yet given upon 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 trysomewhere else. Why not?”
He, in short, possesses the world-wearywisdom at the heart of this engaging, adventurous novel.