The Krasnansky family is making their way out of Soviet Russia, travelling to Rome.
Samuil, the patriarch, is annoyed by the tour guide’s suggestion that the history of Western civilization could be plotted along the road that the bus is travelling.
“Their history: imperialist aggression, dogmatic theocracy, totalitarian monarchy, and fascism, Samuil muttered to Emma.”
He cleaves to Communism, and he is angered when others define the world in terms which are, for him, meaningless.
Of course it’s hard for him to explain, at times it seems impossible to explain, how fundamentally and dramatically his experiences have shaped his view of the world.
It’s difficult in other times and other places, for parents and children to understand the differences between generational experiences, but the differences between Samuil’s experiences and those of his sons (Karl and Alec) are harder to translate than some.
“Samuil liked the bindery. He liked the acrid, moldering smell of paper and glue – the smell of knowledge. In one corner of the shop sat two old bookbinders, pious Jews, who bound and repaired. Hebrew holy texts. Everywhere else were books in Yiddish, Latvian, German, Hebrew, French, English, Russian, and Esperanto.”
Samuil knows from an early age that there are many stories, many versions of the same story. But readers only gain an understanding of his story gradually, through memories from his younger years in the bindery throughout the events of his life.
As the family prepares to wait, and wait, and still wait some more in Rome; as they wait to be granted access to another country that they might learn to think of as a kind of home; throughout that long wait, Samuil remembers.
“How had it happened that the people in the past, all long dead, now seemed to him to be the real people, and the people in the present, including his own children, seemed to him evanescent, so nearly figments that he could imagine passing his hand through them?”
His children, Karl and Alec, each in their own way, also reflect and reach for meaning.
This next generation is not haunted by the same kind of memories, but they have similar questions about identity, pushing and pulling at the past for understanding.
“Mine is the archetypal Jewish face. Like something formed on the run and in a panic. Nose, eyes, ears, mouth: finished. He has a face for a new age, I hope. No more running, no more panic.”
And even without the running and the panic, there is tension and unhappiness.
In particular, three generations of Krasnanskys travelling together creates an atmosphere that members of any family, forced into familiarity under uncomfortably intimate conditions, will relate to.
When Alec asks Polina about a change she’s suggested for their living conditions in Rome, he wonders if she really would be “[h]appier sharing an apartment in the suburb with Rosa? You’d be miserable.” And Polina responds: “A happier miserable”.
Choices that are not really choices: these proliferate in the lives of the Krasnanskys.
Sometimes they are aware of the restrictions they have been living under, but this transitory existence in Rome casts a new light on their experiences, too.
For instance, when Alec wanders into a theatre, looking for a distraction, he’s exposed to pornography for the first time. It’s world-changing.
“When it ended, Alec grasped the full extent of Soviet deprivation. If Russian men were surly, belligerent alcoholics it was because, in place of natural, healthy forms of relaxation, they were given newspaper accounts of hero-worked dairy maids receiving medals for milk production.”
Although much of the family’s experiences (and particularly Samuil’s memories) are grim, and although they are frustrated and disappointed about their efforts to leave Rome, there are humourous bits like this one: Alec in the movie theatre and his realization.
(It’s not the kind of humour to which every reader will respond, but it’s there.)
Alec takes Polina to the theatre, and slips his hand up her skirt (and then slips back into memory, which gives the reader another perspective on him through his younger years). Their relationship is complicated, and arguably more transitory than those of the others (not only because they got together relatively recently).
“Alec believed that he might have had the most honorable of marriages. It had been founded on an act of kindness, whereas boredom, impulsiveness, and desperation seemed to be the foundations of too many others. Too many wives and husbands acted as if they wanted to annihilate each other.”
His ruminations on his relationship with Polina leads to the passage from which the book’s title is drawn.
“Some couples would have divorced years earlier if not for the complications inherent in divorcing and then leaving the Soviet Union. They’d remained together just long enough to get to the free world – whose freedom they’d defined in no small measure as freedom from each other. Their stories, at least in spirit, were the negative impressions of his own.”
For although The Free World is about global movements, political parties, racial and cultural identity, immigration and survival…it’s also a story about ordinary people looking for love.
“The thrill was in saying the words and having someone say them back. The conversation was always the same anyway. You repeated at twenty-six what you’d said at sixteen. And, if you were lucky, you got to repeat it again at fifty-six and ninety-six.”
(And the reader can cross some of those years with the stories of Samuil and Emma, their sons and their wives, and, in a projected way, the lives of grandchildren, who hover at the edges of the narrative.)
“To see yourself through admiring eyes, to tell a woman what you wanted – what could be better? How could you tired of that? Emigration had already spoiled too many pleasures and hadn’t granted many new ones in return.”
What pleasures have been spoiled and what pleasures are on offer: that’s the stuff of David Bezmozgis’ first novel.
By now we all know that it’s on the shortlist, so it’s obviously got a high Giller-bility.
This book has received tonnes of critical acclaim, has a solid marketing campaign behind it, and Natasha and Other Stories is seriously good work.
The question remains: can any writer’s second book (only Lynn Coady has written more) stand down Michael Ondaatje, whose work has been heralded and recognized by so many juries?
Rome is not filled with tourists in this novel, but with people stopping over, waiting to leave.
The narrative is suitably fragmented. One character’s perspective slips into another’s memories.
Between times, between generations, between ideologies: it’s complicated.
Some poetic bits. (“She looked to have what Olya had had – beauty like a long blade, carelessly held.”)
Mostly pragmatic in style. (“There were terrible pains and a great deal of blood.”)
Good bit of dialogue. Some letters. A few exchanges not in English.
“For practical advice, he recommended settling in Ladispoli instead of Ostia. Ostia was overrun by Odessans. Ladispoli was populated more by people from Moscow, Leningrd, Latvia, Lithuania. In short, it was more civilized. But both towns were on the seashore. Both were close to Rome by train.”
The setting is background; interior geography triumphs, because the characters are all about leaving.
It’s a kaleidoscopic view of experience and desire.
Readers can try to keep an eye on their favourites…
but ultimately the most striking part is the novel’s rootlessness, its constant motion.
You appreciate the scent that rises from the lining of an old suitcase when you open the clasps. Small details can carry a great weight of sensory experience for you. You’re not much for planned tours and usually opt to explore on-your-own. You don’t need to buddy up with characters.