Summer, 1978. Among the thousands of Soviet Jews who have landed in Italy to secure visas for new lives in the West are the members of the Krasnansky family-- three generations of Russian Jews. Together they will spend six months in Rome-- their way station and purgatory.
There is a great deal in this book about religion and the experience of trying to immigrate to the US, Australia, or Canada which the main characters are trying to do and the struggle of being turned away and being in a state of flux or moratorium, which occurs when they find themselves in Rome waiting and trying to be accepted into the country of their choice. There is some desperation that feels very realistic, crime, and also a sense of being unwanted, especially when one has a history of illness and might be seen as a burden to a country. In addition, there is a little bit about feminism or at least the female experience is included, though definitely not to the extent as the male one but it still balances it somewhat. This novel also delves into communism and perspectives of these Jewish characters on Stalin a bit as well as Begin and the peace process in Israel. They have interesting viewpoints and considering that Bezmozgis is a Latvian Jew who immigrated to Canada, one can't help but feel the legitimacy in the way that he represents these viewpoints and characters overall.
I will say the one thing that really detracted me from the storyline I was most interested in learning from, however, was the side plots about infidelity. I was wondering if Bezmozgis was trying to use this as a metaphor for some of the characters who were Jewish but did not want to live in Israel or had lived in Israel and left...as in one being unfaithful to one's nation in a way but it didn't really come across strongly enough if this was what he was going for. Instead, it made the novel seem a little unfocused and I would have rather he devoted those pages to more about the struggle in terms of politics and religion.
Also, I would strongly recommend reading Natasha by Bezmozgis...I remember liking it even more.
pg 78 "I tell you, if I worshiped the sun, we'd all end up in the dark."
pg. 149 "In the end, every corpse has the same face: your own."
pg. 185 "She looked to have what Olya had had-beauty like a long blade, carelessly held."
pg. 260 "But I'm his mother. Men believe they have secrets only because women pretend that they don't know."
pg. 269 "The name is from the Bible, which some of them claim to have read. As a work of literature, it's gotten mixed reviews. Our mailman says that God was no Tolstoy."
pg. 277 "I'm not looking for perfection. So far I've been a citizen of two utopias. Now I have modest expectations. Basically, I want the country with the fewest parades."
The various family members must deal with dislocation and nostalgia, and the promises and perils of life in the free world. While facing uncertainty about their future, they must eke out a subsistence with their own activities, both honest and dishonest, and the help of refugee organizations. Through flashbacks, the reader learns each person's individual history and motivations for deciding to abandon life in the Soviet Union. None are idealistic or very admirable emigrants; most are self-interested or confused; they find themselves caught up in the absurdist underworld of emigration where they are encouraged to fabricate or embellish tales of persecution in order to get permanent asylum in the free world.
As I read, I found myself disagreeing strongly with the many glowing reviews the book has received. The characters left me cold; they seem to be representatives of specific ideologies rather than human beings. Their lifelessness may be appropriate to their living in a bureaucratic limbo, but it precludes the reader from having any emotional connection with them.
In terms of plot, the book drones on and on, and I kept plowing through hoping something would happen. Perhaps the author was trying to convey the pointlessness of the lives of the emigrants-to-be, but the lack of momentum makes reading a chore. Only in the last quarter of the novel does anything of consequence transpire. Structurally, the book is not a cohesive whole; rather, it is a series of vignettes loosely stitched together.
Another caveat: there is little background explanation so the reader is expected to know a great deal about both Jewish and Soviet history. A knowledge of Czarism, Bolshevism, Zionism, and Fascism is needed, especially since the name-dropping in the book is not restricted to just the most well-known leaders of the various political movements. At times I was left wondering whether the author had a specific intended audience of which I was not a member. Complete dialogues in Italian - untranslated - may have been intended to convey to the reader the language difficulties of the emigres, but they also needlessly frustrate the reader who may infer an attitude of superiority on the part of the author.
Readers interested in the theme of exile and aspirations or in the Jewish immigrant story should look elsewhere. It is a story worthy of telling, but Bezmozgis' attempt to tell it has not proved worthy.
I wished I could remember more of my A-level history, as I sometimes struggled to comprehend the different political forces at work in 20th Century Latvia. Add Zionism to the mix and you have a complex weaving of ideologies; it is perhaps not surprising that members of the same family found themselves at times on opposing sides of the struggle.
Always beautifully written and rich in detail, this is a book to take your time over and provides much food for thought.