September 2, 2004
Russian Emigre's Tales of New World
The three A's in "Natasha" are filled in by tiny stylized Matryoshka dolls, the traditional Russian stacking dolls, on the book jacket of David Bezmozgis' radiant debut (Farrar Straus and Giroux, $18).
In this collection of linked stories, the three figures at the center are a mother, father and son who leave Riga, Latvia, for Toronto, Canada. The stories are told from the point of view of the son, Mark Berman, who observes everything and helps interpret the New World for his parents.
Like his narrator, Bezmozgis is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. He left Riga in 1979 and arrived in Toronto in 1980 at the age of 6. But the stories are "not very autobiographical – they are only superficially based on my family. It's a combination of incidents that happened, things I misremembered, stories that happened to other immigrants," he said.
Bezmozgis writes with a beautiful economy of words, and with warmth, wit and loyalty toward a community he feels very much part of. The first story opens soon after the family arrives in Toronto, and they live "one respectable block" from the center of the Russian community with its "flapping clotheslines" and borscht-smelling hallways. Through the stories they struggle and progress to better apartments and to a suburban house "at the edge of Toronto's sprawl."
Each story is a fully lived moment on the Berman family's journey toward fitting in. In Latvia, Roman Berman was a massage therapist, a trainer of Olympic athletes. Sometimes, when the father isn't around, the young boy takes out and studies an old photo of his father in Riga, his face carrying the "detached confidence of the highly placed Soviet functionary." For the boy, "it was comforting to think that the man in the picture and my father were once the same person."
In the story "Roman Berman, Massage Therapist," the father passes difficult certification exams, sets up an office with his name on the door and then waits for clients. A rabbi suggests advertising, and they pass out copies of a flyer full of newly acquired superlatives. When a doctor calls and invites the family to Shabbat dinner, they accept, full of hope.
He writes, "Before Stalin, my great-grandmother lit the candles and made an apple cake every Friday night. In my grandfather's recollection of prewar Jewish Latvia, the candles and apple cakes feature prominently. When my mother was a girl, Stalin was already in charge, and although there was still apple cake, there were no more candles. By the time I was born, there were neither candles nor apple cake, though in my mother's mind, apple cake still meant Jewish. With this in mind, she retrieved the apple cake recipe and went to the expensive supermarket for the ingredients."
They arrive at Dr. Kornblum's home with "feigned confidence" and a warm apple cake. The doctor means well, but is patronizing, even insulting, sending the family home with their cold apple cake. Fearing more bad luck and rejection, they dump the cake, expensive ingredients and all.
With poignancy, Bezmozgis shows how the yearnings of the immigrants and the good intentions of others don't quite match. Other stories reveal gaps of understanding between the family and friends they left behind, and between members of the larger family.
Bezmozgis, Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar are a troika of young Russian Jewish émigré fiction writers of considerable talent. They write of a sense of being between worlds, although each is quite different: Shteyngart is the satirist of the group. Bezmozgis and Vapnyar, who has also published a collections of stories, are more similar in their spare, understated style, although most of Vapnyar's stories are set in the former Soviet Union, while Bezmozgis portrays one émigré family, and through them, the larger community.
The three follow in a long, respected line of Jewish writers who have creatively mined their immigrant pasts and ethnic neighborhoods in fiction. Writers like Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Mordecai Richler and Bernard Malamud come to mind.
"It's a dream to be part of that tradition," Bezmozgis said, although he feels most akin, stylistically and thematically, with writers like Isaac Babel and Leonard Michaels.
For the author, being Jewish is very important. "I'm an atheist. I think that limits what kind of religious life I can have without being a tourist or hypocrite. Being part of a community, at synagogue, gives me pleasure." He added, "You put me in a synagogue with old Eastern European Jews, and I'm likely to break down in tears. That is my idea of Jewish tradition and my identity."
Growing up, he was the family's translator and since he was 10, he would write letters for his father, a massage therapist like Roman Berman. The author attended an Orthodox Jewish day school for eight years and then a public high school. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal, he received an MFA in film. He worked in Los Angeles for five years as a documentary filmmaker before moving back to Toronto.
He admittedly has a poor memory, and finds that can be valuable. About Latvia, he remembers nothing. "It allows me not to be too deeply connected to things. I can't be faithful to something I can't remember." In writing he tries "to find the emotional truth, not a documentary truth," he said.