The Free World

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Overview

August 1978. Brezhnev is in the Kremlin. Nuclear missiles stand primed in their Siberian silos. The Iron Curtain divides East from West. And in the muggy darkness of a train compartment, the young Krasnansky brothers—with their wives, their parents, and a pair of sleeping little kids—are crossing Italy. Italy! The destination of every Russian Jew who refused to play by the rules and go to Israel. Italy! Where all you have to do is spin the globe, choose a country (Canada? New Zealand?), and wait for the papers. ...

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This is a heartfelt multigenerational saga of great historic scope and even greater human depth. In summer, 1978, Brezhnev sits like a stone in the Kremlin, Israel and Egypt are ... inching toward peace, and in the bustling streets of Rome, Soviet Jews have appeared through a crack in the Iron Curtain. Among those landing in Italy to secure visas for new lives in the West are members of the Krasnansky family - 3 generations of Russian Jews. They will spend 6 months in Rome - their way station and purgatory. They immerse themselves in the carnival of emigration, in an Italy rife with love affairs and ruthless hustles, with dislocation and nostalgia, and with the promise and peril of a new life. Through this family, an intimate portrait of a tumultuous era is created with precise, musical prose. Read more Show Less

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New York, U.S.A. 2011 Hardcover 1st Edition New in New jacket Book. Signed by Author(s) An Outstanding Copy-Signed By The Author On The Title Page. Author'S Signature Only. A ... First Edition, First Printing. Book Is In Fine Condition. Boards Are Clean, Not Bumped. Fore Edges Are Clean. Interior Is Clean And Legible. Not Remaindered. Dust Jacket Is In Fine Condition. Not Chipped Or Crinkled. Not Price Clipped. Dust Jacket Is Covered By Mylar Brodart. Thanks And Enjoy. Read more Show Less

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Overview

August 1978. Brezhnev is in the Kremlin. Nuclear missiles stand primed in their Siberian silos. The Iron Curtain divides East from West. And in the muggy darkness of a train compartment, the young Krasnansky brothers—with their wives, their parents, and a pair of sleeping little kids—are crossing Italy. Italy! The destination of every Russian Jew who refused to play by the rules and go to Israel. Italy! Where all you have to do is spin the globe, choose a country (Canada? New Zealand?), and wait for the papers. Italy! For the Krasnanskys, it might as well be the moon.

Alongside thousands of other Russian immigrants, they will spend half a year in the village of Ladispoli, on the outskirts of Rome, experiencing the full range of the human circus that is Italy—love affairs, freedom, a nostalgic reliving of the Soviet past, and blind and frantic negotiations with an unknowable future. Part holiday, part exile, these six months will be—for good and ill—the greatest adventure of their lives.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Bezmozgis follows his well-received Natasha and Other Stories with a meticulous study of the capricious spaces between historical certainties. First, there's the gap that allows the Krasnansky family to flee Soviet Latvia in the late 1970s for the edge of Rome, where a population of Jewish refugees contemplate their chances of emigrating to Canada, America, or Australia while awaiting news of Israel's peace with Egypt amid widespread anti-Zionism. Then there's the generational gap between the Krasnansky patriarch, unreconstructed Communist Samuil, who only reluctantly leaves the bloc he fought and sacrificed for, and his somewhat profligate sons, Alec and Karl, keen to snatch up the opportunities—sexual, financial, and criminal—that the West affords. And finally there is the growing distance between Alec and his wife, Polina, who is fleeing an ex-husband and a scandalous abortion. Bezmozgis displays an evenhanded verisimilitude in dealing with a wide variety of cold war attitudes, and though the unremitting seriousness of his tone makes for some slow patches, the book remains an assured, complex social novel whose relevance will be obvious to any reader genuinely curious about recent history, the limits of love, and the unexpected burdens that attend the arrival of freedom. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Polina has somewhat fecklessly left her devoted, upright husband for Alec, a smooth-talking womanizer now eyeing a teenage girl. Responsible older brother Karl has big dreams but helps the family survive by getting involved in a shady business. Family patriarch Samuil, who still mourns a brother lost in World War II, remains firmly secular even as his wife drifts toward the family's Jewish heritage. Sounds like your typical family problems, but the Krasnanskys are Soviet Jews who have fled to the West (it's 1978), and the miracle of this debut novel is how effectively Bezmozgis (Natasha: And Other Stories) captures both the family's recognizable tensions and the particular difficulties of the Soviet émigré experience. Staunch Communist Samuil, for instance, contravened his convictions to emigrate and remain with his family, while Polina will never see hers again. Having opted not to go to Israel, the Krasnanskys find themselves in Rome, struggling to arrange visas to the United States or Canada. Bezmozgis fills their wait with carefully nuanced anguish and, yes, hope. VERDICT Bezmozgis proves why he was recently proclaimed one of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40; this is mellifluous, utterly captivating writing, and you'll live with the Krasnansky family as if it were your own. Highly recommended.—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews

A Russian Jewish family travels to America in decades following the Revolution that defined their patriarch's life, in this grim first novel from the prize-winning Latvian-born author (Natasha and Other Stories, 2004).

The Krasnanskys—retired businessman Samuil, his stoical wife Emma, their married sons Karl and Alec, the latter's spouses, and a pair of grandsons—make their way to Rome en route to Chicago. But the relative who was to have sponsored them must instead accommodate a black-sheep sibling, and the Krasnanskys decide to try their luck in Canada ("It's more European than America, and more American than Europe"). The episodic narrative that develops from this compromise encompasses Samuil's burden of memories, both proud and regretful (he never ceases mourning the disappearance of his brother Reuven, a more idealistic version of Samuil's pragmatic self); the troublesome exigencies to which plodding Karl and self-absorbed, sensual Alec drive themselves; and the sorrows of Alec's winsome, sensitive wife Polina, haunted by fallout from a lost love and an unwanted abortion. Bezmozgis creates a fascinating structure: Events occurring in the narrative present are juxtaposed with flashbacks to similar events which echo and illuminate them. But the resulting fullness gives an impression of redundancy and overemphasis, even when crucial distinctions are lucidly made. It all seems more like "the emigrant experience" than this family's experience of emigration. And yet, the vividness of its characters and several superbly handled scenes, including a Rosh Hashanah pageant at which Polina endures painfully mixed emotions while watching other people's children perform, and a brutally funny account of a scam involving stolen Russian ikons which climaxes in a chop shop, keep recalling the novel to vivid life. The result is a flawed, fascinating chronicle, reminiscent of another honorable failure about lives stolen, cast away and never fully recovered: Isaac Bashevis Singer's Shadows on the Hudson(2008).

By no means the book it might have been. But Bezmozgis is a potent writer who may yet astonish us all.

Liesl Schillinger
From the start, Bezmozgis overturns clichéd expectations of immigrant idealism; he knows his characters too well to have any illusions about them…[he] laces even his darkest humor with pathos. While his depictions don't flatter his subjects, they honor them by conveying each person's individual history, motivations and truth.
—The New York Times Book Review
Adam Langer
Might it be overstating the case to include this first-time novelist in the same sentence as such fine writers as [Philip] Roth and [Leonard] Michaels? Well, Mr. Bezmozgis's taut 2004 debut collection Natasha and Other Stories suggested that he might well be of those authors' caliber; The Free World goes a long way toward confirming this status…Bezmozgis is…an astute and compassionate observer, a meticulous historian and a gifted stylist…subsuming his voice to that of his characters and finding humor through ironic observation…He has created an unflinchingly honest, evenhanded and multilayered retelling of the Jewish immigrant story that steadfastly refuses to sentimentalize or malign the Old World or the New.
—The New York Times
From the Publisher
“Self-assured, elegant, and perceptive. . . [Bezmozgis] has created an unflinchingly honest, evenhanded and multilayered retelling of the Jewish immigrant story that steadfastly refuses to sentimentalize or malign the Old World or the New. Sholem Aleichem might well feel proud. And perhaps so too might Philip Roth and Leonard Michaels.”—Adam Langer, The New York Times

“Bezmozgis overturns our cliched expectations of immigrant idealism . . . Strikingly, he never pretends that his confused, self-interested characters are admirable, virtuous or even likable, but he respects them nonetheless. His book pays tribute to their tenacity and to their sometimes accidental courage . . . Bezmozgis laces even his darkest humor with pathos. While his depictions don’t flatter his subjects, they honor them by conveying each person’s individual history, motivations and truth.”—Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review

“The linked stories of David Bezmozgis’s acclaimed debut collection, Natasha (2004), measured a young Latvian Jew’s life spent as a foreigner in a foreign land—North America—and sketched an ever widening gulf between history and tradition and the immigrant’s Western experience. His perceptive and engaging first novel, The Free World, is anchored a few years earlier than Natasha, in 1978 and records the Krasnansky family’s existence in transit—no longer in the Soviet Union but not yet at its final destination.”—Time

“David Bezmozgis’s debut story collection Natasha, met with the sort of critical reception that even grandiose adolescents are too realistic to expect . . . More recently, The New Yorker included him on the roster every young writer dreams about: its 20 under 40 list, in June 2010. If that final accolade seemed a little much last summer—six years after the release of Bezmozgis’ only book-length work—his new novel, The Free World, makes it seem prescient.”—Slate

“What makes Bezmozgis such a joy to read is his sincerity of tone, his seemingly bottomless empathy. Irony and black humor are inevitable characteristics of prose by writers from the former Soviet Union; they are ingrained in our literature, our very worldview. As young immigrant writers, our knowledge of our community benefits from both an insider’s and outsider’s perspective, but the danger of this observational stance is that potential to turn on our characters, make them comical at the expense of their humanity. Bezmozgis never falls into this trap. His loyalties lie staunchly with his creations, and the absurdities he points out are deeply funny, yet filtered through a mature wisdom.”—The Forward

“Thought-provoking . . . powerfully realized, absorbing, and old-fashioned in satisfying ways.”—The Boston Globe

“Bezmozgis’s keen sensitivity and ability to render human frailty is exquisite. In its most successful moments, The Free World not only localizes the grand drama of shifting, global ideologies but also binds the allegorical to relatable human emotions.”—Time Out New York (4 out of 5 stars)

“[The Free World’s] strength is in the language. Unlike the crisp, tidy prose of Natasha, written in the detached candor of the teenage narrator, the voices of The Free World speak a new Frankenstein tongue, its seams purposefully showing. Though written in English, the dialogue has the distinct rhythm and tone of Russian that has been translated, almost word-for-word, without an interpreter’s laborious task of adjusting for context. As a storytelling device, it’s perfect; it immerses the reader in the Krasnansky’s household and, lest he forget, reminds him that the place he has entered is very Russian—not Russians among Americans, as he may be used to, or even Russians among Italians.”—The New York Observer

“In the past decade, a handful of writers have added compelling twists to the classic immigration novel, adding new and unexpected layers to tales of newcomers in new lands. Jeffrey Eugenides, for example, wrote about a hermaphrodite immigrant in Middlesex; in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the protagonist had a fantastic imagination and used an unexpected language infused with Spanish and video game slang. Now comes David Bezmozgis’s The Free World, an immigration novel in which the characters don’t actually immigrate . . . Each person in the rambling Krasnansky clan is explored in detail and with keen insight, which Bezmozgis achieves with dazzling manipulations of point-of-view.”—Bookforum

 

“Polina has somewhat fecklessly left her devoted, upright husband for Alec, a smooth-talking womanizer now eyeing a teenage girl. Responsible older brother Karl has big dreams but helps the family survive by getting involved in a shady business. Family patriarch Samuil, who still mourns a brother lost in World War II, remains firmly secular even as his wife drifts toward the family’s Jewish heritage. Sounds like your typical family problems, but the Krasnanskys are Soviet Jews who have fled to the West (it’s 1978), and the miracle of this debut novel is how effectively Bezmozgis (Natasha: And Other Stories) captures both the family’s recognizable tensions and the particular difficulties of the Soviet émigré experience. Staunch Communist Samuil, for instance, contravened his convictions to emigrate and remain with his family, while Polina will never see hers again. Having opted not to go to Israel, the Krasnanskys find themselves in Rome, struggling to arrange visas to the United States or Canada. Bezmozgis fills their wait with carefully nuanced anguish and, yes, hope.VERDICT Bezmozgis proves why he was recently proclaimed one of The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40; this is mellifluous, utterly captivating writing, and you’ll live with the Krasnansky family as if it were your own. Highly recommended.” Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

 

“Bezmozgis makes good on the promise of his celebrated first book, Natasha and Other Stories (2004), in his spectacular first novel. Sharply funny and fast-paced, yet splendidly saturated with intriguing psychological nuance and caustic social commentary, The Free World follows a contentious Latvian Jewish family as they join the chaotic exodus of Soviet Jews in 1978. In the brilliantly ensnaring opening scene, set in a teeming train station, we meet the very different brothers Krasnansky. Handsome and seductive Alec, scandalously married to beautiful and non-Jewish Polina, has an eye for luscious females that will prove catastrophic, while dutiful husband and father of two Karl is aggressively muscled, gruff, and fiercely pragmatic. Samuil, their father, proud of his military bearing and service, remains a loyal Socialist, disdainful of weakness and sentiment. Hoping to settle in America, the Krasnanskys end up stuck in Rome for the summer, poor, crowded into shabby rooms, and maddened by byzantine and corrupt bureaucracy. As they struggle to survive this baffling limbo, they are deluged with memories and become entangled in a casually brutal criminal underworld. Bezmozgis infuses every scene with prismatic significance, covering an astonishing swath of Jewish and Soviet history, immigrant traumas, sexual drama, and family angst. A brilliantly ironic and beautifully human novel of exile and yearning.”Donna Seaman, Booklist

 

 

 

The Barnes & Noble Review

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.

--Cameron Martin

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374281403
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 3/29/2011
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 9.00 (w) x 6.38 (h) x 1.16 (d)

Meet the Author

David Bezmozgis was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1973. His first book, Natasha and Other Stories, won a regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was a 2004 New York Times Book Review Notable Book. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library. In 2010, he was named one of The New Yorker's “20 Under 40.” 

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Read an Excerpt

 

JULY

1

Alec Krasnansky stood on the platform of Vienna’s Western Terminal while, all around him, the representatives of Soviet Jewry—from Tallinn to Tashkent—roiled, snarled, and elbowed to deposit their belongings onto the waiting train. His own family roiled among them: his parents, his wife, his nephews, his sister-in-law, and particularly his brother, Karl, worked furiously with the suitcases and duffel bags. He should have been helping them but his attention was drawn farther down the platform by two pretty tourists. One was a brunette, Mediterranean and voluptuous; the other petite and blond—in combination they attested, as though by design, to the scope of the world’s beauty and plenitude. Both girls were barefoot, their leather sandals arranged in tidy pairs beside them. Alec traced a line of smooth, tanned skin from heel to calf to thigh, interrupted ultimately by the frayed edge of cutoff blue jeans. Above the cutoff jeans the girls wore thin sleeveless shirts. They sat on their backpacks and leaned casually against each other. Their faces were lovely and vacant. They seemed beyond train schedules and obligations. People sped past them, the Russian circus performed its ludicrous act several meters away, but they paid no attention. Alec assumed they were Americans. He guessed they were in their early twenties. He was twenty-six, but he could pass for younger. In school and university he had run track and had retained a trim runner’s build. He also had his father’s dark, wavy hair. From the time Alec was a boy he had been aware of his effect on women. In his presence, they often became exaggerated versions of themselves. The maternal ones became more maternal, the crude ones became cruder, the shy ones shyer. They wanted only that he not make them feel foolish and were grateful when he did not. In his experience, much of what was good in life could be traced to a woman’s gratitude.

Looking at the two girls, Alec had to resist the urge to approach them. It could be the simplest thing in the world. He had studied English. He needed only to walk over and say, Hello, are you Americans? And they needed only to respond, Yes.

—Where in America do you live?

—Chicago. And where are you from?

—Riga, Latvia. The Soviet Union.

—How interesting. We have never met anyone from the Soviet Union before. Where are you traveling to?

—Chicago.

—No. Is this true?

—Yes, it is true. I am traveling to Chicago.

—Will this be your first time in Chicago?

—Yes, it will be my first time in Chicago. Can you tell me about Chicago?

—Yes, we can tell you about it. Please sit down with us. We will tell you everything about Chicago.

—Thank you.

—You are welcome.

Alec felt Karl’s hand on his shoulder.

—What’s the matter with you?

—Nothing.

—We have seven minutes to finish loading everything onto the train.

He followed Karl back to where their parents were arranging the suitcases so that Karl and Alec could continue forcing them through the window of the compartment. Near them, an elderly couple sat dejectedly on their bags. Others worked around them, avoiding not only helping them but also looking them in the face. Old people sitting piteously on luggage had become a familiar spectacle.

—I see them, Karl said. Move your ass and if there’s time we’ll help them.

Alec bent into the remaining pile of suitcases and duffel bags on the platform. Each seemed heavier than the last. For six adults they had twenty articles of luggage crammed with goods destined for the bazaars of Rome: linens, toys, samovars, ballet shoes, nesting dolls, leather Latvian handicrafts, nylon stockings, lacquer boxes, pocketknives, camera equipment, picture books, and opera glasses. One particularly heavy suitcase held Alec’s big commercial investment, dozens of symphonic records.

First hefting the bags onto his shoulder and then sliding them along the outside of the train, Alec managed to pass them up to the compartment and into the arms of Polina and Rosa, his and Karl’s wives.

Karl turned to the old couple.

—All right, citizens, can we offer you a hand?

The old man rose from his suitcase, stood erect, and answered with the formality of a Party official or university lecturer.

—We would be very obliged to you. If you will allow, my wife has with her a box of chocolates.

—It’s not necessary.

—Not even a little something for the children?

Karl’s two boys had poked their heads out the compartment window.

—Do as you like. But they’re like animals at the zoo. I suggest you mind your fingers.

Alec and Karl shouldered the old people’s suitcases and passed them into their compartment. Alec noticed the way the old man looked at Polina.

—This is your wife?

—Yes.

—A true Russian beauty.

—I appreciate the compliment. Though she might disagree. Emigration is not exactly cosmetic.

—Absolutely false. The Russian woman blossoms under toil. The Russian man can drink and fight, but our former country was built on the back of the Russian woman.

—What country wasn’t?

—That may be so, but I don’t know about other countries. I was a Soviet citizen. To my generation this meant something. We sacrificed our youth, our most productive years, our faith. And in the end they robbed us of everything. This is why it does my heart proud to see your wife. Every Jew should have taken with him a Russian bride. If only to deny them to the alcoholics. I’m an old man, but if the law had allowed, I would have taken ten wives myself. Real Russian women. Because that country couldn’t survive five minutes without them.

The old man’s wife, the incontrovertible product of shtetl breeding, listened to her husband’s speech with spousal indifference. There was nothing, her expression declared, that she hadn’t heard him say a hundred times.

—To women, Alec said. When we get to Rome we should drink to it.

Alec helped the old couple onto the car and scrambled up as it began to edge forward. He squeezed past people in the narrow passageway and found his family crammed in with their belongings. Perched on a pile of duffel bags, his father frowned in Alec’s direction.

—What were you talking about with that old rooster?

—The greatness of the Russian woman.

—Your favorite subject. You almost missed the train.

Samuil Krasnansky turned his head and considered their circumstances.

—The compartments are half the size.

This was true, Alec thought. Say what you want about the Soviet Union, but the sleeping compartments were bigger.

—You want to go back because of the bigger compartments? Karl asked.

—What do you care about what I want? Samuil said. Samuil Krasnansky said nothing else between Vienna and Rome. He sat in silence beside his wife and eventually fell asleep.

Copyright © 2011 by Nada Films, Inc.

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First Chapter

The Free World

A Novel
By David Bezmozgis

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2011 David Bezmozgis
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780374281403

  JULY1Alec Krasnansky stood on the platform of Vienna’s Western Terminal while, all around him, the representatives of Soviet Jewry—from Tallinn to Tashkent—roiled, snarled, and elbowed to deposit their belongings onto the waiting train. His own family roiled among them: his parents, his wife, his nephews, his sister-in-law, and particularly his brother, Karl, worked furiously with the suitcases and duffel bags. He should have been helping them but his attention was drawn farther down the platform by two pretty tourists. One was a brunette, Mediterranean and voluptuous; the other petite and blond—in combination they attested, as though by design, to the scope of the world’s beauty and plenitude. Both girls were barefoot, their leather sandals arranged in tidy pairs beside them. Alec traced a line of smooth, tanned skin from heel to calf to thigh, interrupted ultimately by the frayed edge of cutoff blue jeans. Above the cutoff jeans the girls wore thin sleeveless shirts. They sat on their backpacks and leaned casually against each other. Their faces were lovely and vacant. They seemed beyond train schedules and obligations. People sped past them, the Russian circus performed its ludicrous act several meters away, but they paid no attention. Alec assumed they were Americans. He guessed they were in their early twenties. He was twenty-six, but he could pass for younger. In school and university he had run track and had retained a trim runner’s build. He also had his father’s dark, wavy hair. From the time Alec was a boy he had been aware of his effect on women. In his presence, they often became exaggerated versions of themselves. The maternal ones became more maternal, the crude ones became cruder, the shy ones shyer. They wanted only that he not make them feel foolish and were grateful when he did not. In his experience, much of what was good in life could be traced to a woman’s gratitude.Looking at the two girls, Alec had to resist the urge to approach them. It could be the simplest thing in the world. He had studied English. He needed only to walk over and say, Hello, are you Americans? And they needed only to respond, Yes.—Where in America do you live?—Chicago. And where are you from?—Riga, Latvia. The Soviet Union.—How interesting. We have never met anyone from the Soviet Union before. Where are you traveling to?—Chicago.—No. Is this true?—Yes, it is true. I am traveling to Chicago.—Will this be your first time in Chicago?—Yes, it will be my first time in Chicago. Can you tell me about Chicago?—Yes, we can tell you about it. Please sit down with us. We will tell you everything about Chicago.—Thank you.—You are welcome.Alec felt Karl’s hand on his shoulder.—What’s the matter with you?—Nothing.—We have seven minutes to finish loading everything onto the train.He followed Karl back to where their parents were arranging the suitcases so that Karl and Alec could continue forcing them through the window of the compartment. Near them, an elderly couple sat dejectedly on their bags. Others worked around them, avoiding not only helping them but also looking them in the face. Old people sitting piteously on luggage had become a familiar spectacle.—I see them, Karl said. Move your ass and if there’s time we’ll help them.Alec bent into the remaining pile of suitcases and duffel bags on the platform. Each seemed heavier than the last. For six adults they had twenty articles of luggage crammed with goods destined for the bazaars of Rome: linens, toys, samovars, ballet shoes, nesting dolls, leather Latvian handicrafts, nylon stockings, lacquer boxes, pocketknives, camera equipment, picture books, and opera glasses. One particularly heavy suitcase held Alec’s big commercial investment, dozens of symphonic records.First hefting the bags onto his shoulder and then sliding them along the outside of the train, Alec managed to pass them up to the compartment and into the arms of Polina and Rosa, his and Karl’s wives.Karl turned to the old couple.—All right, citizens, can we offer you a hand?The old man rose from his suitcase, stood erect, and answered with the formality of a Party official or university lecturer.—We would be very obliged to you. If you will allow, my wife has with her a box of chocolates.—It’s not necessary.—Not even a little something for the children?Karl’s two boys had poked their heads out the compartment window.—Do as you like. But they’re like animals at the zoo. I suggest you mind your fingers.Alec and Karl shouldered the old people’s suitcases and passed them into their compartment. Alec noticed the way the old man looked at Polina.—This is your wife? —Yes.—A true Russian beauty.—I appreciate the compliment. Though she might disagree. Emigration is not exactly cosmetic.—Absolutely false. The Russian woman blossoms under toil. The Russian man can drink and fight, but our former country was built on the back of the Russian woman.—What country wasn’t?—That may be so, but I don’t know about other countries. I was a Soviet citizen. To my generation this meant something. We sacrificed our youth, our most productive years, our faith. And in the end they robbed us of everything. This is why it does my heart proud to see your wife. Every Jew should have taken with him a Russian bride. If only to deny them to the alcoholics. I’m an old man, but if the law had allowed, I would have taken ten wives myself. Real Russian women. Because that country couldn’t survive five minutes without them.The old man’s wife, the incontrovertible product of shtetl breeding, listened to her husband’s speech with spousal indifference. There was nothing, her expression declared, that she hadn’t heard him say a hundred times.—To women, Alec said. When we get to Rome we should drink to it.Alec helped the old couple onto the car and scrambled up as it began to edge forward. He squeezed past people in the narrow passageway and found his family crammed in with their belongings. Perched on a pile of duffel bags, his father frowned in Alec’s direction.—What were you talking about with that old rooster?—The greatness of the Russian woman.—Your favorite subject. You almost missed the train.Samuil Krasnansky turned his head and considered their circumstances.—The compartments are half the size.This was true, Alec thought. Say what you want about the Soviet Union, but the sleeping compartments were bigger.—You want to go back because of the bigger compartments? Karl asked.—What do you care about what I want? Samuil said. Samuil Krasnansky said nothing else between Vienna and Rome. He sat in silence beside his wife and eventually fell asleep.Copyright © 2011 by Nada Films, Inc.

Continues...

Excerpted from The Free World by David Bezmozgis Copyright © 2011 by David Bezmozgis. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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