David Bezmozgis' debut novel, "The Free World," takes us to Rome in 1978. The novel focuses on a family of Jewish Latvian emigrants, the Krasnanskys, part of a flood of Jewish émigrés from the Soviet Union who are waiting in Rome before departing to more permanent destinations in "the free world."
While waiting for visas to American, Canada or Australia, the Soviet émigrés are tourists against their will. After a traumatic emigration, the Krasnanskys find themselves being bused to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society center. They are warned to keep themselves in line while being simultaneously told about famous tourist attractions: "A complete list of things that were forbidden to them would be provided at the first Joint meeting. Meanwhile, if they looked out their window to the right they would be able to see a section of the Villa Borghese park. It was a good place to go for a walk or for a picnic."
The novel is narrated in the third person, but each chapter is filtered closely through the perspective of one family member. We are closest to three family members: the father, Samuil; his son, Alec, and Alec's wife, Polina.
Samuil is a staunch Communist who is depressed about leaving what was for him a worker's paradise on Earth. Alec finds his seducer's eye wandering even in their unsettled situation. Polina, who divorced her first husband to marry Alec and follow him into emigration, reflects on the causes of her separation from her own family.
The other family members adjust more easily. Alec's brother Karl, his capitalist ambition freed, becomes an efficient black-market dealer within the émigré community.
Meanwhile, Samuil's wife, Emma, and Karl's wife, Rosa, rediscover Jewish traditions and encourage Rosa's children to do the same, much to Communist Samuil's scorn: "Eagerly, in their singsong voices, his grandsons chirped away in Hebrew, and turned back two generations of social progress."
The novel sets itself a challenge in that it focuses on characters who are stuck waiting for something to happen, and waiting around is not an inherently dramatic situation. There is a secondary plot, concerning Alec's unfortunate involvement with several émigré gangsters, but the number of similar supporting characters makes this intrigue hard to follow.
In the end, the most gripping parts of the book deal with the past: Samuil's memories of discovering communism and fighting for the cause alongside his brother before the Soviet Union betrayed him; Polina's memories of the hard choices she had to make for Alec. For these characters, the present and future are strange and insecure; the past, painful though it might have been, is a safer place to dwell.
Laura C.J. Owen is a freelance writer in Tucson, Ariz.