“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 lives in Amherst, MA.