The Free World

David Bezmozgis

The Free World

David Bezmozgis

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The Free World Summary

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In his loosely autobiographical novel, The Free World (2011), Latvian Canadian author David Bezmozgis examines the efforts of a Jewish Latvian family struggling to emigrate to North America in the late 1970s. Himself a native of Latvia who in 1980 at the age of six arrived with his family to Canada, Bezmozgis bases his book on his own experiences and family history. Bezmozgis was shortlisted for the annual Giller Prize honoring outstanding literary achievements in Canada for The Free World.

At the beginning of the narrative, three generations of the Krasnansky family escape the economic hopelessness of their home country Latvia, a Soviet satellite state suffering under the economic stagnation of the Leonid Brezhnev era in the Soviet Union. Their patriarch, Samuil, is a former Red Guard, part of a group of peasant volunteer soldiers within the larger Soviet Red Army. He suffers from several of ailments including arthritis and hypertension, along with pain associated with wounds and diseases he experienced during World War II. Despite being a proud Soviet, Samuil’s son Karl, a born capitalist, is the driving force behind the family's uprooting. His other son Alec though less ideologically-driven nevertheless wishes to live in a place where "everyone—genius and idiot alike—is allowed to bumble along as he pleased." Also traveling with the family is Karl's wife, Rosa, and their sons, and Alec's wife Polina.

Together, they set out on an arduous journey that brings them from Latvia to Ukraine to Czechoslovakia to Austria to Italy, where the family is waylaid in Rome at the start of the book. There, they seek passage to Canada, but at this time Canada refuses to admit any "invalids"—a category in which Samuil is deemed to belong. They might be able to enter Israel, but Samuil, Alec, and Karl all resist this idea, as they believe doing so would mean subjugating themselves to Hebrew ideology. Moreover, they worry about their safety in Israel, given that the country is involved in several regional military conflicts. Alec concludes that "getting killed or maimed in Lebanon, or Egypt, or wherever the bullets were flying, seemed to defeat the whole point of leaving the Soviet Union."

As they figure out their next steps, the family settles in Ladispoli, a Jewish emigre community in the city. Samuil has a tremendously complicated relationship with Judaism. On one hand, he resents Polina for not being Jewish. On the other, he is—like many dyed-in-the-wool Communists—a staunch atheist who bristles at Rosa's indoctrination of his grandsons into Jewish traditions. "His grandsons chirped away in Hebrew and turned back two generations of social progress." Samuil's only friend in Ladispoli is Josef Roidman, a violinist and Ukrainian military veteran who lost his leg in World War II. One night over a bottle of cognac, the two celebrate the 36th anniversary of the battle during which Roidman lost his leg.

As the story progresses, Samuil's childhood trauma is slowly exposed. During the Bolshevik Revolution of 1918, Samuil watched as soldiers in the White Army—an anti-communist military group—murdered his father and grandfather in the family kitchen. This renders his abandonment of the Soviet Union as a sort of betrayal to his father and grandfather's memories. For example, when he lashes out at his fellow Soviet expatriates over the smallest of grievances, he reflects his own self-hatred over leaving Latvia. Yet at the same time, Samuil comes to recognize that his decision to leave behind a comfortable—yet stagnant—existence in Latvia is really an act of allegiance to his sons, both of whom are dying to get out of the Soviet Union. This mixed reaction to the family's emigration is shared by Polina, who despite terribly missing her little sister, her parents, and colleagues has come to accept that she feels a strong allegiance toward her new family. In this way, The Free World is a story about immigrants who realize that allegiance to history or ideology must take a backseat to one's immediate family.

The family finds its way to Canada, where a brave new capitalist world awaits them.

According to The New York Times, The Free World "pays tribute to [Bezmozgis's family's] tenacity and to their sometimes accidental courage."
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