The Free World by David Bezmozgis. HarperCollins 2011.
The Free World was shortlisted for both the 2011 Giller Prize and the 2011 Governor General’s Literary Award.
Set in 1978, The Free World follows the Krasnansky family as they journey from Soviet-controlled Latvia to Rome in July and settle into the city, marking time until November as they await the necessary papers that will allow them to travel on to their ultimate destination. Three generations comprise their little party of eight: Samuil and his wife Emma, their two sons, Alec’s wife Polina, and Karl’s wife Rosa with her own two youngsters. In Rome, the family enters a sort of limbo, a rest stop between the past and their future.
Samuil Krasnansky never wanted to leave the Soviet Union, where his bureaucratic position in Riga brought him both material comfort and prestige. As a veteran of the Red Army, he is dedicated to the Regime. Indeed, he and his brother Reuven changed their family name from Eisner to Krasnansky in support of the revolution. However, when his two sons, Karl and Alec, decide to emigrate, Samuil realizes that his position will become untenable if he stays behind. When he cannot persuade his sons to stay on, he believes he and his wife Emma have no choice but to leave his home with his sons. His two sons don’t share his loyalty to his homeland. They are looking for a better life, for greater opportunity, and hope to find it in ‘the free world’. Samuil, Alec and Polina are the primary protagonists of the novel. The story of the circumstances that led to their departure from Latvia and their adjustment to life in Rome provide a vehicle to explore the Russian Jewish experience.
I really enjoyed the historical aspects of this book. My knowledge of the Jewish experience in Russia and the Soviet Union doesn’t run much beyond a viewing of Fiddler on the Roof, which receives a disparaging mention in the novel. I felt The Free World‘s shortcoming rested with the characters. I didn’t find any of them very likeable or memorable. Samuil puts his political creed before his family. Alec is an irresponsible playboy. Polina twice becomes pregnant, has an abortion, and then enters an unhappy marriage with the father. A slow learner? A couple of the peripheral characters were more charming.
Bezmozgis’ writing is clear, crisp and capable and I enjoyed reading this book for its history lesson.