Immi­grant City: And Oth­er Stories

By – April 29, 2019

It’s the immi­grant expe­ri­ence that is the lifeblood of Jew­ish Amer­i­can writ­ing,” observed the Toron­to-based writer and film­mak­er David Bez­mozgis a few years ago. An alert, com­pas­sion­ate immi­grant son and grand­son — his fam­i­ly migrat­ed to Cana­da from Latvia in the late 1970s — Bez­mozgis con­tin­ues to refash­ion the core themes of immi­grant fic­tion in fresh and orig­i­nal ways. In a series of high­ly regard­ed, prize-win­ning books pub­lished over the past fif­teen years — begin­ning with Natasha and Oth­er Sto­ries (2004), and fol­lowed by The Free World (2011) and The Betray­ers (2014) — Bez­mozgis has explored the impact of arrival on immi­grant fam­i­lies and the psy­cho­log­i­cal strains of adjust­ing to a new soci­ety. In flight from a men­ac­ing old world (as in the inhos­pitable For­mer Sovi­et Union), Bezmozgis’s immi­grants seek a place of dig­ni­ty — a space where, final­ly, after inter­nal and exter­nal wan­der­ing, they can be at rest.

In Bezmozgis’s fic­tion, the past tends to rup­ture into the present, dis­lodg­ing char­ac­ters who remain haunt­ed in a new world: haunt­ed by nos­tal­gia for an imag­ined hap­pi­er, ear­li­er life, by the anomie that marks new world drift, by buried fam­i­ly secrets. The author’s new col­lec­tion, Immi­grant City, deep­ens his explo­ration of Jew­ish dias­poric themes of dis­place­ment and move­ment, mem­o­ry and nos­tal­gia. The nar­ra­tor of Lit­tle Roost­er” dis­cov­ers that there were aspects of his wor­shiped grandfather’s life of which he was entire­ly unaware: It was dawn­ing on me that I’d under­es­ti­mat­ed and under-imag­ined him.” It is the grandson’s oblig­a­tion to remem­ber the dead through the art of imag­in­ing — a way of keep­ing faith with the past, and thus a means of gain­ing a sense of bal­ance in the present. For Bezmozgis’s immi­grants, how­ev­er, the dream of achiev­ing bal­ance, of feel­ing at home, remains fraught.

Iron­i­cal­ly, it is the mid­dle gen­er­a­tion of immi­grant sons and grand­sons, now grown up and par­ents them­selves, who remain unbal­anced, liv­ing dis­sat­is­fied, betwixt and between lives. Their chil­dren reveal a way to be. In the tit­u­lar sto­ry, it is the narrator’s young Cana­di­an-born daugh­ter, Nora, who voic­es deep truths about a jour­ney to a strange and yet uncan­ni­ly famil­iar ter­ri­to­ry of immi­grant Toron­to. In search of a cheap car door to repair dam­age from an acci­dent, the nar­ra­tor — seem­ing­ly a ver­sion of Bez­mozgis him­self — locates the part online, from a fam­i­ly of Soma­lis liv­ing at the edge of their immi­grant city, thrum­ming with life and lar­ce­ny.” Dur­ing the busi­ness trans­ac­tion, he leaves Nora with the Soma­li fam­i­ly; upon return­ing, Nora is sit­ting rigid­ly on the sofa, her face puffy and tear-stained,” angry for being aban­doned by her father. She is now wear­ing a pale blue hijab,” a gift from the Soma­li fam­i­ly to make her feel com­fort­able among strangers. On the trol­ley ride home, she refus­es to take the hijab off, and asks her father when she can have a play­date with her new Soma­li friend, Samiya. Nora, it appears, adapts quick­ly to cul­tur­al dif­fer­ence. At the end, in answer to her father’s ques­tion, “‘Nora, it’s our stop.… Do you want to go home or keep going?’” she replies, “‘Go home and keep going.’” The para­dox inher­ent in this response — the desire to return and the simul­ta­ne­ous need to keep going, to exist in tran­si­tion — informs vir­tu­al­ly all the sto­ries in Immi­grant City.

Bezmozgis’s new col­lec­tion revis­its the Berman fam­i­ly, the focus of most of the sto­ries in Natasha. In Roman’s Song,” we learn that Roman Berman, now an estab­lished mas­sage ther­a­pist, has achieved his dreams of open­ing his own prac­tice, being his own boss, pro­vid­ing for his fam­i­ly in a dig­ni­fied way.” But he is also pres­sured by a pair of shady, shame­less char­ac­ters to turn his prac­tice into an after-hours broth­el. At the same time, Roman is both irked by and yet feels com­pas­sion for one Svirsky, a new immi­grant with a hag­gard” face. His eyes were gen­tle, brown and filled — as the say­ing went — with all the sor­rows of the Jew­ish peo­ple.” Caught between schem­ing small-time Toron­to wise guys and Svirsky’s prac­ti­cal need, Roman choos­es dig­ni­ty, and rejects the broth­el scam. This moral cri­sis dis­lodges a com­plex wave of nos­tal­gia in Roman, along with a ges­ture of rach­mones, of mer­cy, for Svirsky, who reminds him of his own strug­gles decades ear­li­er as a green­horn in Toron­to. In the end, Roman longs to return to the con­di­tion rep­re­sent­ed by this hap­less immi­grant soul: He pos­sessed some­thing Roman had lost and could nev­er recov­er. Con­fused, tired, defeat­ed, Svirsky would still go home to the expec­tant clam­our of his young chil­dren.” Despite his achieve­ments, Roman longs to start over, to feel again the world of pos­si­bil­i­ty and poten­tial, of fil­ial love and fam­i­ly noise. For Bezmozgis’s immi­grants, the cost of new world suc­cess is mea­sured in loss and long­ing and despair.

The two longest sto­ries, A Grave­stone for an Old Grave” and The Russ­ian Riv­iera” are tour de force per­for­mances that both sum­ma­rize and deep­en the key themes in Immi­grant City. In A Grave­stone for an Old Grave,” an Amer­i­can-born son of immi­grants, Vic­tor Shul­man, a suc­cess­ful lawyer in Los Ange­les, agrees to return to Riga, his family’s home­land, to over­see the plac­ing of a grave­stone on his grandfather’s grave in the Jew­ish cemetery.

Victor’s home­com­ing,” how­ev­er, proves dis­com­fit­ing. With­out the pull of nos­tal­gia, or any spir­i­tu­al con­nec­tion to his Lat­vian Jew­ish roots, Vic­tor lacks an immi­grant son’s imag­i­na­tion,” the abil­i­ty to see him­self as part of fam­i­ly mem­o­ry. He also encoun­ters an uncan­ny dou­ble in the fig­ure of Ilya Rabin­sky, also a lawyer, the duti­ful son who stayed behind in the old world, and whose father was Victor’s father’s friend grow­ing up in Riga. In a nice rever­sal, Riga, pre­vi­ous­ly the nos­tal­gic heim, becomes Victor’s immi­grant city,” a would-be home­land now per­ceived as oth­er, mys­te­ri­ous. At the same time, Vic­tor dis­cov­ers the self he might have become if his fam­i­ly had stayed in Riga. In a series of unset­tling encoun­ters, the Amer­i­can son, shorn of mem­o­ry, dis­cov­ers the lim­its to his own capac­i­ty for griev­ing. By con­trast, Ilya, the Riga native and would-be broth­er, embod­ies what Bez­mozgis calls blood­less com­po­sure,” a phrase that describes Ilya’s shame­less desire to scam the immi­gra­tion asy­lum sys­tem; he presents an ille­gal pro­pos­al to Vic­tor born of eco­nom­ic need and fil­ial resent­ment. Lost in the home­land, Vic­tor is left in a murk of fatigue,” fac­ing the truth that dri­ves his father’s self­ish obses­sion with the gravestone.

In the final sto­ry, The Russ­ian Riv­iera,” Bez­mozgis blends com­e­dy and pathos, turn­ing what the lit­er­ary crit­ic James Wood calls his com­pas­sion­ate irony” on a world of small-time mob­sters, eas­i­ly deceived would-be prize­fight­ers, and par­venu fam­i­lies all try­ing to sur­vive in the immi­grant city. Kostya, who might have been a box­ing champ in the old world, now makes a liv­ing as a bounc­er at Skin­ny Zyama’s night­club, The Russ­ian Riv­iera,” where the bejew­eled wives” of his over­dressed, wealthy clien­tele enjoy a Vegas-style floor show of scenes from Fid­dler on the Roof. In the end, a hard­ened vet­er­an of the Russ­ian front with a blood­less com­po­sure,” guides Kostya through a scene of ter­rif­ic vio­lence. In Bezmozgis’s vision, it is the old­er immi­grant gen­er­a­tion who knows how to sur­vive, knows how to take a punch and remain standing.

The sto­ries gath­ered in Immi­grant City con­tin­ue David Bezmozgis’s project of sound­ing the emo­tion­al depths in the immi­grant encounter with a bewil­der­ing, often humil­i­at­ing new world, where the past is shroud­ed in secrets, buried under lay­ers of repres­sion. What did I stand to gain by scav­eng­ing through the past?” Bezmozgis’s fic­tion­al grand­son asks. In sto­ries filled with com­pas­sion for both the dead and the liv­ing, Immi­grant City offers mov­ing, rich­ly imag­ined answers to this cos­mic question.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

Discussion Questions

The past informs both the present and future in these beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten and inci­sive sto­ries. The sub­tle ways in which immi­grants and chil­dren of immi­grants adjust or not to new sur­round­ings, homes and chal­lenges is revealed but nev­er solved, because the immigrant’s rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of the self in a new land is an ongo­ing journey.

The sto­ries place us in a Toron­to night­club or a doctor’s office, at a vir­tu­al real­i­ty con­fer­ence or even in Latvia where a very Cana­di­an­ized for­mer child of that coun­try goes to obtain a grave­stone for his grand­fa­ther. In every case, the char­ac­ters are vivid, the dia­logue tren­chant and the feel­ings of loca­tion and dis­lo­ca­tion exam­ined with great sen­si­tiv­i­ty. The large issue of Jew­ish immi­grant life under­lies the tales but it is in the details of the duti­ful son or the rene­gade daugh­ter, the grandfather’s Yid­dish let­ters or an encounter with a Soma­li immi­grant, that the poignant nuances of every­day life come through. Immi­grant City is filled with trag­ic and com­ic char­ac­ters and moments, beguil­ing a read­er every step of the way.