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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Author David Bezmozgis discusses his novels on-campus

Published: April 27, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

David Bezmozgis, renowned author of the novels “Natasha” and “The Free World,” came to campus this past Wednesday. He was invited by the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry. While Bezmozgis is well-known for his gifted prose, he has also shed light on what many feel is an ignored community.

Before reading from sections of both his novels, Bezmozgis explained how the past 10 years have been a journey: an attempt to chronicle the experience of a community of Jews. These people, who emigrated from Soviet Russia, are following in a long tradition of exiled Jewish people. Bezmozgis’ heritage is complicated: He is Jewish, born in Riga, Latvia, and, at the age of six, moved to Canada. Since then, he has also spent a large amount of time in the United States. His internalized understanding of the trials of adapting to the culture of a new country is reflected in his novels.

Bezmozgis reads out loud slowly, letting the impact of his words seep into every audience member. He first read from his novel “Natasha,” which is actually a collection of short stories about a particular family. The narrator is the son Mark, who ages as the stories progress. In the story Bezmozgis chose to read out loud, Mark is 13 years old, struggling to understand his identity as a Jewish son in the land in which he was not born. In the story, his family has immigrated to Israel. His mother insists he attend Hebrew School, despite the teasing Mark encounters.

Mark is an aggressive child, frustrated with his surroundings and strikes out by attacking the children who bully him. This almost leads to an expulsion, and Mark’s sinking feeling from the thought that his parents’ hard-earned money will be entirely wasted on his schooling. Mark is also questioning whether or not he possesses a “Jewish soul,” a sort of internal searching that brings even more depth to the short story. At the close of the story, Mark is accused of acting like an animal at a Holocaust memorial, even though he has finally and completely acknowledged his heritage.

Bezmozgis’ prose is masterful. Writing in the mindset of a child is difficult, given that children have experienced less and understand the world through a far different lens than adults do. Yet Bezmozgis’ portrayal of Mark is completely in tune with his age. Mark talks and interacts like a 13-year-old boy. He is lively, springing off the page. Bezmozgis also succeeds in his crafting of plot. Tensions run high as audience members wondered whether or not Mark would be expelled. By causing listeners and readers to care truly about his characters, Bezmozgis has proved himself a true author.

Bezmozgis did read out loud from his other novel, titled “The Free World.” Bezmozgis declared that he desired to write this book because he was still invested in the topic and that there were ideas he could not cover in “Natasha,” given Mark’s young age and the short story format. Bezmozgis was also interested in Jewish people who “dropped out,” an Israeli term for Soviet Jews who chose not to immigrate to Israel upon leaving Russia. These people usually went to Rome, which became a sort of odd in-between location. This is why “The Free World” is set in Rome: Bezmozgis’ curiosity about these people and their exodus was only satisfied by writing about it. “The Free World” also centers on family dynamics. Bezmozgis read sections out loud that explained the relationship between the two brothers. Bezmozgis refers to the characters in this family as a “merry band that is traveling together.” This “merry band” goes on to experience various cultures across different nations, forced to adapt throughout their exodus.

The topics covered in Bezmozgis’ novels are very close to home for some at Brandeis. Sylvia B. Fishman, chair of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, along with Ira Krakhman, moderated the discussion of Bezmozgis’ novels. Krakhman is a Brandeis-Genesis Institute fellow and is pursuing her master’s degree. She gave a very moving opening, describing how this presentation of Bezmozgis’ novels allowed her to embrace her heritage. Krakhman, who is Ukrainian and Jewish, describes how she wanted to confront her identity in a similar method to a train wreck—both publicly and graphically. By embracing Bezmozgis’ themes, Krakhman is able to connect them to herself and her own exodus to the United States. While Krakhman describes herself as obsessively chasing her memories of being in transit, Bezmozgis and his work has given her some peace.