The Free World

  • Review
By – August 31, 2011

In his much-cel­e­brat­ed debut col­lec­tion of sto­ries, Natasha (2004), David Bez­mozgis joined an emerg­ing gen­er­a­tion of young immi­grant” Jew­ish writ­ers (Gary Shteyn­gart and Lara Vap­n­yar among them) who take the com­e­dy of new world arrival, the pathos of new world adjust­ment as their sub­ject. Born in Riga, Latvia in 1973, Bez­mozgis emi­grat­ed with his par­ents to Toron­to in 1980. In his sto­ries Bez­mozgis revealed, in the tra­di­tion of Philip Roth, a wicked satir­ic eye for the hypocrisies of the Cana­di­an ver­sion of an alright­nik mid­dle class as well as a deeply empath­ic heart regard­ing the fate of the old­er Jew­ish gen­er­a­tion, dis­placed and adrift in the dis­ori­ent­ing wilder­ness of 1980’s Toron­to. A nos­tal­gia for the nos­tal­gia of old world Jews — as in the great sto­ry Minyan” — marks Bezmozgis’s best work.

In his much-antic­i­pat­ed new nov­el, The Free World, Bez­mozgis returns to his core sto­ry of dis­placed Jew­ish fam­i­lies in tran­si­tion from the For­mer Sovi­et Union, but in this case the nov­el offers a back sto­ry,” a his­tor­i­cal­ly- res­o­nant pre­lude to the inter­con­nect­ed tales of émi­grés in Natasha. Now Bezmozgis’s can­vas widens, as he explores a lit­tle-known chap­ter in the his­to­ry of the Dias­po­ra: the world of FSU Jews await­ing their fate in and around Rome dur­ing the sum­mer and fall of 1978, when the USSR, under pres­sure from the US and Israel, loos­ened its bor­ders, allow­ing Jews to emigrate.

In The Free World we meet the Kras­nan­skys, a three-gen­er­a­tion fam­i­ly from Latvia, in the mid­dle of their jour­ney out. There’s a back sto­ry” to each fam­i­ly mem­ber, and each employs a method of nego­ti­at­ing the fraught expe­ri­ence of uproot­ing in the face of the unknown. What new modes of self­hood will the unimag­ined free world” bring? Can uproot­ing ever enact a fresh start? As we fol­low the Kras­nan­sky fam­i­ly anx­ious­ly await­ing news of anoth­er home­land, we dis­cov­er that the past con­tin­ues to haunt the present; above all, that Jew­ish mem­o­ry — as fig­ured in the deep­est emo­tion­al recess­es of the family’s patri­arch Samuil, a staunch believ­er in the Com­mu­nist cause — con­tin­ues to seep through, despite the USSR’s efforts to quash reli­gious feel­ing and rit­u­al. The Free World thus deep­ens Bezmozgis’s core themes of Jew­ish mem­o­ry and unabashed admi­ra­tion for the old­er gen­er­a­tion as it reveals him to be a nov­el­ist of the first rank.

David Bez­mozgis Around the Web

Gal Beck­er­man in con­ver­sa­tion with David Bezmozgis

David Bez­mozgis’s book sound­track for The Large­heart­ed Boy

Twit­ter Book Club

Read a tran­script from the Twit­ter Book Club for The Free World.


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

Discussion Questions