The free world

by David Bezmozgis

Hardcover, 2011





New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.


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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member rondoctor
Excellent book. Very different from any book I've read previously. At first, Bezmozgis' technique seemed dialogue-heavy, but soon it was completely natural. The many flashbacks filled in the back story beautifully. If you are at all interested in the Soviet emigre experience, this is a must-read book.
LibraryThing member kirstiecat
I thought this book was a particularly interesting take on the experience of Latvian and Russian Jews who survived WWII and their children who do not want to live in either the Soviet Union or in Israel. The book spans quite a few decades and works on both remembrances of the grandfather and the experiences of his children.

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 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.

Memorable quotes:

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."
… (more)
LibraryThing member Schatje
The book tells the story of the Krasnansky family, Latvian Jews moored for five months in Rome in 1978 as they await visas to migrate to North America. The main characters are Samuil, the family patriarch and autocratic doctrinaire Communist; Karl, the eldest son and pragmatic capitalist-in-the-making; Alec, the second son and apolitical, carefree playboy; and Polina, Alec's long-suffering Gentile wife. Differences in political and religious ideologies inevitably result in domestic tensions.

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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member suesbooks
This is a very well-written book detailing the lives of an extended Latvian family waiting in Rome to emigrate to Canada. Much history is provded, and the brothers are not at all upstanding. Bezmozgis is able to present the characters well, even though he uses few words.
LibraryThing member jayne_charles
The summary on the back cover led to me to suppose this was a lighter read than it was. Intelligent and insightful, I found it quite a harrowing read, delving into the past lives of its characters, Soviet refugees looking to start a new life in the West. As the story begins they have arrived in Rome, that city intended as a brief stopover as they make their way to America. However events get in the way of their plans and they find themselves stuck in Italy for the foreseeable. As they find homes and work in Rome, the novel examines their lives in Latvia before and during Communism.

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.
… (more)
LibraryThing member lkernagh
Bezmozgis has written a story akin to Matryoshka (Russian nesting) dolls. The story follows, on an individual level, each family member, their personal backstory and the tough choices they have faced. At the family unit level, the story presents a richly complex multi-generational family where differences can rock but never completely break the family bond. At the community level, we experience connections between other Latvian Jewish emigrants who also find themselves in limbo in Italy. At a country level, we experience, through the Krasnansky family, their life in Latvia under communism and, through their forced extended stay in Italy, a sense of dislocation, language, cultural, and societal barriers as they find ways to live and earn money while they wait for their immigration papers to come through. At a world level, we learn about the complex (and frustrating) red tape, which I am sure is just as much as maze now as it was in the 1970’s setting of this story. Bezmozgis, while a skilled storyteller, takes certain things for granted, like the reader having knowledge of Russian/ Soviet Jewish history. I also struggled to understand the focus of Bezmozgis’s story. The story seems to use the Krasnansky family as mere characters to represent a broader “emigrant experience” type of story. The story message is a good one, and the characters come across as more "real" than likeable (interpret that anyway you choose to). I can see how this story may have different meaning for different readers, just like how “The Free World” can mean different things to different people.

Overall, a good read if you are looking for a fictional read of a Russian emigration experience.
… (more)
LibraryThing member snash
The book is the story of a family of Latvian Jews emigrating to the West, rejecting both Russia and Israel. The characters are revealed through their backstories and the book focuses on that disjointed period as they are stranded in Italy awaiting admittance to Canada. The characters are not entirely likable but believable.



Page: 0.2831 seconds