Jews, even in the midst of the worst circumstances, maintained a sort of objective sense of humor

The Free World

End of the seventies: Brezhnev half-opens the Iron Curtain. Thousands of Jewish families from the Eastern Bloc emigrate to Canada, to the US or to Australia. With this bittersweet family chronicle, David Bezmozgis tells the story of the Krasnansky family, who arrived in Rome after a difficult journey from Latvia, waiting for this freedom promised by the Western world.
We got to meet him in Paris and were able to ask him a few questions about this novel, which echoes his own personal story.

What part of your own personal story is there in the story of the Krasnansky family?

My family left the Soviet Union in 1979, in Latvia – I was born in Riga – and we took the same journey. We went through Rome, on our way to Canada, aiming originally for the United States, so in that sense it’s similar, but the story that takes place in The Free World is very different than what happened to my family. The make up of the characters is not analog, but the general route is the route we took, that pretty much all Soviet Jews who ended in the United States and in Australia took.

This part of history is not the most well-known. How did you proceed in your research? Did you sometimes have a hard time accessing sources or data?

The reason for writing the book is, in a way, precisely because it’s not well-known. When people think about Jewish immigration, they often think about the Second World War and the Holocaust or what came before, but there is a massive emigration and the last one, from Europe, which was this emigration from the Soviet Union. Research was, in a few ways, in part because all these people are still alive – most of them are still alive – so I would speak to people, I would meet people of my grandparents’ generation, and then some people who were involved on the administrative side, aid agencies, aid agency workers, who had helped move these people around. Then, research consisted in reading about the Soviet Union, books on the period; but about this specific episode in Rome, there’s very little, almost nothing, so, in a fact, this book is one of the few documents in English, and in French, that chronicles this whole event.

Two characters in the novel are particularly interesting: Samuil and Polina, who are at the same time different and similar. Samuil is quite suscipious of the new world, he is Jewish and Polina is not, and they’re not from the same generation. How meaningful was it for you to confront two characters like them?

Samuil represents a generation that, to my mind, was the embodiment of the Eastern European Jew, the ashkenaze Jew, which means somebody who originally spoke Yiddish and came from that part of the world which had a Jewish background, and went through all the sufferings of the twentieth century, so in Samuil’s case that was the pogroms, the Holocaust. In my mind, people like him or people of my grandparents generation, when I though of a Jew, that was my idea of what that person looked like, and those people are gone. The world that created them no longer exists, the world of the shtetl, the Yiddish-speaking world, no longer exists, the sort of politicized, ideological world of the 1930’s that created communists, socialists, it doesn’t exist anymore. I wanted to capture that sort of person because I feel great affection for that generation and I know that their lives would never be the same because of what happened historically and I think it’s very important to understand Russians in general, Soviet people, and Russian Jews, to understand that generation first, so a character like him had to be there.
I was very interested in Polina, first of all I’ve never written from a woman perspective, and I really wanted to do that, I think it’s important to try, and also this idea of what the experience of women was in the Soviet Union, and in the East, the Eastern Bloc, I also think it’s not really understood in the West, it’s a different sort of mentality, you say that she and Simon are similar, in a way they are, they’re both very clear-headed, whereas the third character, Alec, who is her husband and Samuil’s son, is not clear-headed at all, he doesn’t take anything seriously. Polina, on the contrary, because of this sort of more limited circumscribed role of women in the Eastern Bloc, had to think very clearly and pragmatically and so did Samuil.

At one point, Samuil’s brother tells him, “A poem in Hebrew never saved any Jew from a pogrom”, which I think represents quite well the lightness that Jewish people use to talk about the tragic events they had to go through. What do you think is the right distance to tackle such a subject? Do you think fiction helped you in the way you treated this part of history?

I think that even a line like that is simply reflective of a sensibility, not just from the perspective of the writer but people’s sensibility. Jews, even in the midst of the worst circumstances, maintained a sort of objective sense of humor, Jews are funny, right? And that’s a sort of rightness of mind, and it finds its way into the book because I think it’s true of who the people are and how they express themselves. Therefore, it works in a literary sense because it’s actually nice to write epigrammatically but it’s also what the people are like, or my take on what the people are like, I think another writer would treat it differently but if you read Jewish writers in general, even Russian Jewish writers like Isaac Babel or Dovlatov or even Vassili Grossman who wrote much more seriously, you’ll find this sort of texture.

The title of your novel, The Free World, is, throughout the novel, a longing, a promise. As you are yourself an emigrant, was this promise fulfilled?

Yes, it was. I was a child when I left, but in a way, I’m more appreciative of the freedom that we were able to achieve by leaving Soviet Union, I think even my parents are. I think in some respect they were in a way molded and shaped by this world that was totalitarian, and even now that they live in the free world, they still sometimes are even shocked by the level of freedom, they think it’s too much freedom, we shouldn’t have this much freedom, other people shouldn’t have this much freedom. And everyday, even now walking around Paris, I’m completely aware and grateful for what I’m able to do, for the way I’m able to live my life, for the freedom that I have to say what I want, go where I please, and aware that this wasn’t the case, and isn’t the case in some places still in the world, I’m incredibly grateful for it.

In the novel, Samuil writes down his own side of history before it’s, as he says, taken by revisionists. Were you, like Samuil, eager to write your own side of the story?

Yes, I think that, in a sense, like Samuil, I saw that there was a hole, that there was, let’s say, one version of history that people were aware of, or had accepted as true, and I think it’s an incomplete version, in many ways through no fault of other people, because they just weren’t familiar enough with the material. People in the West were inhibited or prohibited from what was happening in the East and people in the East couldn’t know what was happening in the West for a really long time. I have a foot in both worlds, I speak Russian, my background is from there, but at the same time, I now live a very Western life, and understand both mentalities, and saw that nothing had really been written in this way, in this complete sense, about these people, not in English, but in Russian, probably also in Hebrew as there is a great big Russian population and people have touched this but not in English. I thought, yes, something like this should exist, and Samuil, in his own former ideological way, feels the same, and can we even trust him when he says that he’s writing it just for posterity and not for himself? In any way, he’s writing it, and there’s of course a third level: a story within a book, and therefore the author needs Samuil to write this story otherwise the reader can’t get it, or how else would we know ? Samuil is not a person who’s prompt to speaking openly about his life to other people so, how do we learn about him? We have this device where he sits there and starts writing.

Did you get any feedback from emigrants in Canada and in the US?

I did. In Canada and the US, there are two audiences: the general audience that doesn’t know very much about this history – which is probably the majority of the audience, who reads it as something new, for information and pleasure – and then you have people who went through this and know the experience, and in many ways known it far better than I do, because they actually were adults when they went through it. For me, there’s a level of anxiety, writing about a world I knew and at the same time didn’t know, but the experience has been that a lot people came up and were grateful, I think in part because nothing like this existed in English, so it’s a form of validation in the country and the culture that they live in now, that their story exists, and is available to the culture at large. On the one hand, they get to relive it in their own terms, but on the other, they’re aware that it’s now a part of the popular culture. The book does exist, it’s been reviewed, generally right, it’s a large publishing house, so it’s in the world and I think for the most part there’s a sense of gratitude and identification. But of course these are Russians, these are Russian Jews, who by nature are never fully content, every now and then you come across somebody who says « Oh I wasn’t quite like that », but I think on the whole, which was important to me, is that I get it right, and from what I’ve heard, most people believe that it’s the case.