What is the proper tone in which to relate the story of the Krasnansky family, three generations of Russian Jews whom we meet in Italy in the summer of 1978, en route from the Soviet Union to the "free world"? What is the most fitting way to do justice to a saga that reckons with émigrés and refuseniks, informants and saboteurs, black markets and bureaucrats, czarists, Bolsheviks, Zionists, fascists, pogroms, suicide, evacuation and the brutality of families wrenched apart? Should the narrative pitch be grave, momentous, huskily lachrymose, perhaps, or even grandly epic?
Not if the storyteller is David Bezmozgis, the author of Natasha and Other Stories. His first novel, The Free World, unspools in a voice as whimsical and wry and trippingly light as a sidewalk musician's, and he draws us in the same way a consummate busker attracts his audience: with deceptive ease and unavoidable power, so that hours later we find ourselves still on the street corner, transfixed, unable to tear ourselves away until the act itself has finished and releases us.
It isn't that Bezmozgis treats his subject airily. He hasn't gone about brightening the story with amusements in order to entertain, or employing ingenious gimmicks, as do the vendors he describes reeling in customers at an open-air market in Rome. In fact, one senses he has not so much imposed his own voice on the novel as discerned, and made himself a conduit for, the voice that might best serve his subject's many octaves of meaning and feeling: a voice whose range includes the absurd.
We are made alert to the presence of the absurd in the opening paragraph, which introduces us to Alec Krasnansky, the 26-year-old, unapologetically libidinous married son at the heart of the book. He is standing on a train platform that is teeming with other emigrants, observing as around him "the Russian circus performed its ludicrous act." Alec, his parents, his brother, both their wives and two young nephews are among the thousands of Soviet Jews gathered in and around Rome, waiting in hopes to secure visas to Israel, America, Australia, Canada.
The novel, which spans five months (as well as folding in several decades of seamlessly woven backstory), reminds us again and again that life is essentially ridiculous. The grouchy red-haired manager of the seedy hotel where the newly arrived emigrants are herded reminds Alec of "a bad comic actor" and "a clown." Alec's father, Samuil, a Communist stalwart even after his denunciation and threatened expulsion from the party, does not share his son's talent for merriment, but he, too, relates to life's blows as if they were reflected in a funhouse mirror. When advised he should think about making a contingency plan, in case Canada doesn't accept him, Samuil snorts. He has one: "The other place."
"What other place? Israel?"
Alec's long-suffering wife, Polina, completes the troika of characters who provide the main storylines. Her perspective, like Samuil's, is less gaily inflected than her husband's but no less imbued with a keen sense of the preposterous. Of the brief English-immersion class she took in preparation for their trip, she retains only two phrases, one being: "Why not visit the exhibition of national economy achievements of the USSR?" (Did I mention the book is often very, very funny?)
If nearly every character is fluent in the language of absurdity, they are hardly all fluent in the many languages that might make their journey easier. Bezmozgis not only depicts foreign-language lessons and interpreters (as well as instances of stinging helplessness in the absence of interpreters), but also suggests how profoundly the imperative to be multilingual, to code switch and adapt, has affected the family for generations - whether the language one must quickly learn (or learn to hide) is Italian, Yiddish, Hebrew or Latvian, or the parlance of party ideology or religious belief. He even scatters in some Esperanto, and again, far from being trotted out as a parlour trick or a busker's device, the use of this international language of hope is both pointed and genuinely affecting.
What makes this novel great is ultimately not really story or voice, but Bezmozgis's tender, trenchant mastery of the idiom of the absurd. For him, absurdism is neither a carnival, a lark nor anything so reductive as an expression of perverse meaninglessness. He comprehends something altogether more shaded, more complex - perhaps like what Graham Greene had in mind when he wrote, "Nothing is ineluctable. Life has surprises. Life is absurd. Because it's absurd there is always hope."
Leah Hager Cohen is the author of seven books. Her new novel, The Grief of Others, will be published in September.