“-Roman Abramovich, remember, you always have a friend in Moscow. Visit anytime.
laughing at his joke, the agent turned, and we proceeded to the elevator and rode up to Sergei’s floor. In the elevator my father leaned against the wall and finally loosened his grip on my neck.
-Don’t ever forget. This is why we left. So you never have to know people like him.”
The interlinked short stories from David Bezmozgis give a fascinating insight into the lives of a Russian Jewish family that has emigrated to Canada in the 1970s. The Soviet rule of fear and the KGB is still in full swing under Brezhnev but for the Berman family made up of Roman, Bella and their son Mark they have escaped that world.
Although as the tale starts with the family living hand to mouth learning English and relying on the immigrant community to help them escaping is far from an easy option.
Through a series of stories Mark grows up and the world around him becomes one that starts to get easier as the hard work put in by his father and mother starts to pay off.
Stories that stand out include Tapka about a friend’s dog who is involved in a car accident after a young Mark and his cousin neglect to look after the animal. The sense of that moment when a childish mistake causes very real adult consequences is brilliantly conveyed.
Then the tale of the Second Strongest Man also provides an insight into the hard world of the KGB, drugs and sport and how quickly a sportsman’s star can fall. The way in which someone can have their life decided for them is palpable as the former world champion weight lifter Sergei has to confront the moment when the authorities decide he is no longer number one.
The final couple of stories concentrate on the fate of some of the older Jewish members of the community and how they have been forgotten and often abandoned by younger generations that see them as some sort of embarrassing link to a past and a world they would rather forget.
After you put the book down a couple of thoughts spring to mind. The first is that essentially we are all the same regardless of where we grow up, all making the same mistakes in life and love. But it also holds out hope that there is such a thing as community and it will come to the rescue when things look bleak. Sadly it is that as much as the former USSR that Bezmozgis’s characters have escaped that you suspect has faded into history.
These stories have a distinctive voice that of someone far from home in a country that his family is trying to make home. The Berman family has escaped Brezhnev’s Russia and moved to Toronto but as Bell and Roman and their son Mark try to get to grips with the new language they also face challenges coming to terms with their past and the complete change Canada offers.
The book opens with a great story Tapka that captures that moment when you grow up and realise that you joking around has serious consequences. As a six year old Mark tears up the trust shown in him by fellow immigrant neighbours after he almost kills their dog Tapka.
In The second tale about how his father tries to set up his own massage business, Roman Berman, Massage Therapist, it shows how hard it is for immigrants to break free of poverty and how crucial their own communities are in opening doors.
More to come on completion…