Hope, it seems to me, is at the center of every human story. Quite simply, people hope for things. Their stories are the things they hope for, as well as what often works to crush those hopes. Eventually, all fates end up the same. However, it is the few victories that we manage to obtain that matters and how proceed from day to day, regardless of the eventuality, to seek those few victories. In perfect accord with this sentiment, we have before us The Free World by David Bezmozgis and the Jewish family of the Krasnanskys.
The book follows the Krasnansky family’s attempt to emigrate from the Soviet Union to Chicago in 1978. Two brothers, Alec and Karl, are the main force behind the attempt, though their reasons for emigrating are quite different.
Alec would see a circus and want to join; Karl, meanwhile, would estimate the cost of feeding the elephants and conjecture that the acrobats suffered from venereal disease.
In particular, Karl seems to want room to explore ambition whereas Alec seems to just want to be free of people ordering him around.
Regardless of their differences, both took family with them. Karl dragged his wife and boys along, though his wife would prefer moving to Israel. Alec is followed by his wife Polina, who sacrificed her dutiful but uninspired first husband in order to do so. Further, their mother and father also accompany Alec and Karl, though their father is a diehard (and important) communist party member and only left rather than face disgrace:
There had been a point—once it became obvious that his sons would leave Riga, that no manner of threats or appeals would deter them, and that his family and his reputation would be destroyed—when Samuil had, for the first time in his life, contemplated suicide…But after a lifetime spend eluding death, the habit of survival was deeply ingrained.
Individual feelings aside, emigration does not go smoothly. Their crossing of the border from the Soviet Union itself is brutal and humiliating. The welcome they receive along the way toward their destination is not encouraging either:
In Vienna, Alec and Polina had had a tiny, but private, room. In Rome they had no such luck. Karl, Rosa, and the boys were given a room of their own but Alec and Polina were directed to share a room with Samuil and Emma on the fourth floor of the hotel. The elevator was either broken or off-limits, it wasn’t exactly clear which. On the ground floor, a sign composed in both Russian and Italian had been posted on the elevator doors. In one script was written, Elevator is not functioning, though in another script someone has scribbled the worlds “For Russians” before the word “Elevator.”
They are barely fed at this hotel provided to them by the impersonal rescue organization supposedly helping them and the power goes out at least once a night.
Worse, their sponsor in the United backs out. Unable to go back the way they had come, the Krasnanskys must then decide where to try to go. Try the United States without a sponsor and hope for the best? Israel? Canada? The Krasnanskys let themselves be bullied by the rescue organization into choosing Canada:
—This is to confirm that you want to go to Canada. You will get a notice in the mail for the doctor’s appointment and for your interview with the Canadian consulate. A word of advice: if you want to go to Toronto, don’t ask for Toronto. Good? Good. Now, if you could call in your brother and his family.
Like that, Alec and Polina left the office. Karl, Rosa, and the boys entered in turn, then Samuil and Emma. Later, when Alec and Karl reconstructed the first meeting with Matilda Levy, neither could recall having ever told her that they had decided to change their destination from America to Canada.
Of course, Canada doesn’t seem to want them because of Samuil’s (Alec and Karl’s father) health, and they find themselves stuck in Italy. With no hope of resolution anytime soon, the Krasnanskys are at the mercy of the unfamiliar place and the confusing and impersonal rescue organization.
In this limbo, the members of this family face unpleasant changes in themselves. Karl becomes even harder than before, involving himself with crime. Samuil, who always defined himself through his control and capability, must face sudden powerlessness and uselessness. They all struggle to cope, though it doesn’t always seem clear what they are even fighting for anymore.
Regardless of all that though, the best of this book for me is the humanness of the characters that Bezmozgis manages to capture and convey. Through copious observation, reflection, and digression, Bezmozgis creates some intensely human people. In fact, the juxtaposition of the characters with the impersonal forces that hound them seems to only magnify the fallible yet endearing aspects of the characters.
Either way, the depiction of the characters really made the book for me. My only regret when I finished was that there wasn’t more to read. It wasn’t incomplete by any means, but I didn’t want to be done. I might just have to go and read The Free World again.