This is a book about trying the impossible: outdistancing the pull of history while remaining in stasis. It begins with a family of Russian-Latvian-Jewish refugees gathering their bags in Vienna, on a railway platform, that perfect symbol of purgatory and anticipation. It ends somewhere on the way to Canada, though we don’t know for certain whether or not the Kraznanskys, who we have come to care about so much in the intervening chapters, actually succeed in arriving at their destination. And that’s how it should be: emigration to the new world is a talisman, forever out of reach; the family’s abandoned life in Riga, on the other hand, is seen only in flashbacks, befitting the disjointed chronology of the stateless immigrant. Their current location is early-70s Rome, and, in his first novel, David Bezmozgis has painted an unforgettable picture of the city from the immigrant perspective: the noises and fashions of the time are pungent, and mix with a general sense of fatality. People here are caught up in history like debris in a great whirling river, going nowhere and resigned to the fact that “this is the nature of our times”.
This world-weary disposition is distilled in Stefan Rudnicki’s charcoal-smoked voice, a voice marinated in Russian Jewish humor, querulous and lively, though he slows down beautifully to fit the gravitas of memories. In a book with not much in the way of a conventional plot, his narration is hugely important in giving weight to the incidental details that coalesce around the family and create smaller stories woven around the simple narrative, and which might put the listener in mind of Gary Shteyngart and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The weak link is the performance of Emma the matriarch, given a uniformly soft compassion that tends to negate her impact, though blame for this must be shared by the author who has created a reactive character with not much interior life of her own. However, Rudnicki clearly respects Emma’s distress at the splintering of her family: relationships are the first casualty of new-found if undefined freedom, and couples pushed together by outside forces fall apart in the manner of old regimes and political systems. “They remained together just long enough to get to the free world, whose freedom they defined in no small part to freedom from each other.” What matters here is personal integrity in the face of overwhelming uncertainty. As Alec reflects, “How you managed to remain upright became your style, who you were. Style was the difference between him and Polina.” Alec and Polina rent a room from Lyvova, a Kiev-born tour guide with a past as compromised as any other characters. Passing through the lives of the Kraznanskys, he provides the real heart of this chaotic and charming book, and provides the book’s killer line: intent on escaping the past, but rejecting the different utopias offered to him by Soviet Russia and Israel, he says, “I want to go to the place with the least number of parades.” A fitting epitaph for a refugee from the 20th century. Dafydd Phillips
Summer 1978. Brezhnev sits like a stone in the Kremlin, Israel and Egypt are inching towards peace, and in the bustling, polyglot streets of Rome, strange new creatures have appeared: Soviet Jews who have escaped to freedom through a crack in the Iron Curtain.
Among the thousands 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. There is Samuil, an old Communist and Red Army veteran, who reluctantly leaves the country to which he has dedicated himself body and soul; Karl, his elder son, a man eager to embrace the opportunities emigration affords; Alec, his younger son, a carefree playboy for whom life has always been a game; and Polina, Alec's new wife, who has risked the most by breaking with her old family to join this new one.
Together, they will spend six months in Rome - their way station and purgatory. They will immerse themselves in the carnival of emigration, in an Italy rife with love affairs and ruthless hustles, with dislocation and nostalgia, with the promise and peril of a better life.
Through the unforgettable Krasnansky family, David Bezmozgis has created an intimate portrait of a tumultuous era. Written in precise, musical prose, The Free World is a stunning debut novel, a heartfelt multigenerational saga of great historical scope and even greater human debth. Enlarging on the themes of aspiration and exile that infused his critically acclaimed first collection, Natasha and Other Stories, The Free World establishes Bezmozgis as one of our most mature and accomplished storytellers.
This book gives the listener a window into the lives of a family in transition between locales, relationships and cultures. It paints immigration as likely closer to reality than the relief of liberation we usually hear about. I happened to be in the mood for such a piece as I listened to it, but the narrator's deep pitch and unimaginative delivery almost stopped me from finishing. Although one of the points of the tale is that we trade one complex circumstance for another, there was NOTHING resolved for any of the characters at the end nor did the listener feel that anyone had learned anything. One of the most unsatisfying endings ever.
7 of 7 people found this review helpful
This is my first experience reading David Bezmogis, but it won't be my last. This was an exceptional novel, extremely well-written, superb narration and fascinating story-line. This book provided insight into the mindset of Russian emigres that I found quite interesting, to say the least.
7 of 8 people found this review helpful
I just could not finish this book. I found the narrator's voice intensely annoying and though it seemed as if the story was going to eventually get interesting, I kept avoiding going any further and never finished.
3 of 4 people found this review helpful
The story wasn't engaging. I didn't really like the major characters. It was hard to care about them. Although I found some of the minor characters interesting. I also learned about the immigration process.
Would you listen to The Free World again? Why?
It hurts to join characters suffering through the immigration process, but worth it, once, for the insights into modern Soviet Jewish feelings and attitudes.
How did the narrator detract from the book?
This is a story about refugees in the modern world - not in danger, not wanting for food or shelter, but truly lost, and inventorying their values for direction as they try to find their place in the world, literally and metaphorically; here their refugee status a painful externalization of their inner lostness. The narrator counters the universalism of this quest, and the particulars of each character, by having each character speak in the same generic Jewish-Russian lilt, as though this were one long Jewish joke.
Who was the most memorable character of The Free World and why?
The old Communists, immensely sympathetic as they lose faith in a system they worshipped, realize they were dupes thinking themselves skeptics, and wonder how to can go on and be useful in this new world; and the young, trying to find their own place.
Any additional comments?
Bezmozgis is a fine portratist, depicting people in their contexts.
Would you try another book from David Bezmozgis and/or Stefan Rudnicki?
Bezmozgis, no. Rudnicki, of course! I listen to him all the time.
What do you think your next listen will be?
What three words best describe Stefan Rudnicki’s performance?
Not his best.
You didn’t love this book... but did it have any redeeming qualities?
It is based on a very interesting and unique topic.
Any additional comments?
This book has too many characters, none of whom I cared about. After half an hour I realized I did not know who any of these people were. After a few hours I was still waiting for something to happen. The book would have benefited from having just a few clear main characters. Instead, it was about several people and provided lengthy background stories for just about everyone else.