September 19, 2011 | by Irina Aleksander
Sometime in the last few years, my sixty-five-year-old father, a Soviet mathematician who spent the first fifty years of his life in Moscow, began speaking to me in English.
That I can’t recall when exactly this happened makes the shift seem, at least in retrospect, both gradual and sudden. One day he was correcting my Russian, his laughter once ascending into a taunting squeal as I attempted to casually use the swear word svoloch (along the lines of “scum”) and mistakenly said slovoch, which, if it were an actual insult, would mean “worder.” Another day, not much later, during what must have been an argument, I couldn’t find the Russian words to describe whatever I was feeling, and I remember my father, calm and patient, saying, “Say eet een English, my luv.” Then last week, a voice mail: “Hi. It is me. Call me back please.” When I return his call, the voice that I know to be father’s asks, without the sharp edges that used to define his accent, “Have you ever been to the Hamptons? Nice place.”
When we moved to the States, I was ten; my father, forty-eight. What this meant was that I lost my accent by the time I started high school while my parents still pulled up to the gas station attendant and said, “Fool up regular.” I spent whole afternoons then explaining to my mother that “ze” and “zat” were nothing like “the” and “that.” That no one in America hung Persian rugs on their walls as decoration. That boiled potatoes were not dinner. When my haughtiness was amusing, they called me “our little Americanka;” other times they looked at me with unrecognizing dismay—there was a stranger in their home, or, worse, a traitor. Read More »
April 5, 2011 | by Irina Aleksander
Set in Rome in 1978, David Bezmozgis’s first novel, The Free World, tells the story of the Krasnansky family, three generations of Latvian Jews, who leave their lives in Riga, and, like many Soviet immigrants bound for the West in the late seventies, must spend six months in the Italian metropolis to secure their visas. Contrary to the book’s title, the Krasnanskys find themselves confined to this Roman waiting room, weighed down by the rubble of their communist past, the uncertainty of their future, and their allegiances to one another. Born in Riga in 1973, Bezmozgis immigrated to Canada with his family in 1980 and told the immigrant assimilation story with his tender, restrained collection of short fiction, Natasha and Other Stories (2004). The Free World is a sort of prologue to Natasha, the taxing journey his resilient characters—Jews in Transit, as the émigré newspaper offered in Rome is called—made before settling in the North American suburb. I recently spoke with Bezmozgis at a café not far from the New York Public Library, where he is currently a fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center.
The Krasnanskys’ story begins on a train platform in Vienna and concludes before they ever reach the North American free world. Had you always intended to contain the narrative in this strange way station?
Yes, one thing I knew very clearly is that the book begins when they get to Italy and it ends when they’re about to leave. That in-between period, that purgatory, is the balancing point between the past, the unknowable future, and the present, which is intriguing and exotic. It’s full of dramatic possibility. It was always fascinating to me that these people had given up their lives without really knowing where they were going. I feel like I leave my apartment in Brooklyn to go to the Bronx with more information than my parents had leaving the Soviet Union to go to Canada.