The Free World by David Bezmozgis

My favorite thing about this novel, which was a travel read for me, was its setting. The Rome of the story is a liminal city for the Jewish emigrants fleeing the Soviet Union; their final destinations vary from the U.S. and Canada to Israel or Australia, but all of them face an undetermined amount of time in Italy while they await visas for their departures. They stay too long to be considered travelers, but not long enough to adapt to the culture (or really to rebel against it). It’s neither a destination nor a place of exile.

I like grey areas. I think you learn very interesting things about people when they’re on the move between two places, whether physical or metaphorical. While on a journey, people are vulnerable–they are outside of their comfortable ways of being in the world, as any travelers are. At the same time, though, they’re often a little more open than they may be once they start to establish themselves in a new circumstance. For the duration of the journey, identity doesn’t seem quite as fixed, consequences don’t seem quite as real, and everything has a temporary tang.

We see some of this in The Free World, especially in Polina. Of the three generations of Krasnansky family members passing through Italy, she is in the middle. She has joined the family by marriage, and has strong emotional ties to the sister that she left in Latvia (not to mention a guilty conscience because of the way that she left her parents). Her marriage is new and a little tumultuous, which leaves her in a position of instability relative to the family. Her decision to leave Latvia was a very serious one, and it’s clear that both home and her future abroad are equally weighty prospects. And yet, in the interim, Bezmozgis paints her with levity. She’s able to embrace her temporary life in Rome without worrying too much about what comes next, and we see her as a character that takes pleasure in finding her place the world. I liked that her impatience with being a tourist and a bystander passed as she found (and excelled at) a job, and that as she did, she began to absorb the beautiful and odd things that crossed her path. I don’t think that we could have seen Polina in quite the same way either in Latvia or in her future homeland.

While I enjoyed the circumstances of transition and vulnerability that Rome provided, I still wasn’t as enthusiastic about the book as many reviewers were. I’m still trying to put my finger on exactly what they saw that I didn’t see. The best I can come up with is that there may be a resonance with Soviet culture (and language) that’s just totally foreign to me. Where many enjoyed the book for its humor, I found it dry; the tone felt so straightforward as to be almost plodding at times. I also had the strong impression that I was reading translated text. As it turns out, there was good reason that I felt this way. In an interview in The Paris Review with Irina Aleksander, Bezmozgis discusses the “translated” nature of the writing:

[Aleksander] My mother—who, for the most part, refuses books in English—recently read The Free World and said that the writing felt very familiar and very Russian. How did you approach the language in the book?

[Bezmozgis] I usually thought about what the conversation would be like in Russian and then would translate it into English. If there was something ungainly about it, then I’d try to correct for it. There are certain words where, if I had a choice between that and some other English synonym, I’d consciously use the one that’s more Russian. My belief is that it will be transparent enough for an English speaker, but if you’re a Russian–speaking reader and you can translate backwards, there are certain nuances that will come through.

Bezmozgis clearly created this effect deliberately, but it didn’t work for me. The language felt stilted, and rather than drawing me into a world that was new to me, I felt like it shut the door in many ways.

Would I have felt differently about this book if I had a personal connection to the cultures depicted? Maybe. But why couldn’t Bezmozgis transport someone who hadn’t shared that experience? In the end, while I liked certain elements of the book–especially the setting and parts of the storyline–I didn’t find it to be especially rich or compelling. I seem to be in the minority on this, though, so if anyone has read it, I’d love to hear other thoughts.

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