From Russia, with stories: David Bezmozgis captures the essence of immigrant life in his new fiction
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 27 May 2003)

When a Soviet refugee tries to get his father a seniors apartment in Toronto, Canadian bureaucrats move so slowly that the old man dies a month before his letter of acceptance arrives. His son's response combines disappointment with irony: "At least in Russia you knew whom to bribe."

That's one side of immigrant life as it appears in the remarkable short stories of David Bezmozgis. Another side involves small children. Two Jewish refugees from Latvia, Roman and Bella Berman, discover that life in Canada brings bewilderment along with hope. Like many earlier immigrants, they look to their child for guidance, because he seems to understand this terrifying new landscape. Mark, just starting school, grows up fast to become a responsible citizen of their miniature nation, the family.

Bezmozgis recreates his childhood world as autobiographical fiction, even placing the family that resembles his own, the Bermans, in the same building (715 Finch Ave. W.) where he lived. He emphasizes the Bermans' ethnic pride. "Soviet refugees but Baltic aristocrats," they live on Finch to avoid Toronto's Russian ghetto, a block away.

These stories operate within the tradition of immigration narrative, a form that welcomes literature as different as Mario Puzo's The Godfather, about desperate Sicilians in New York, and Brian Moore's The Luck of Ginger Coffey, about an Irishman unmanned by failure in Montreal. Immigration narrative depends, for both pathos and comedy, on watching character evolve under the pressure of change. With energy and luck, immigration enriches both newcomers and their adopted society; but it also runs up a heavy price in humiliation and loneliness. Bezmozgis brings to this complicated theme a fresh tone, some new characters, and a gift for swift, sharp storytelling.

Eight or nine stories about the Bermans will appear next year as a book (still untitled) from HarperCollins in Canada and Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York. This spring, however, something totally unprecedented has happened to Bezmozgis. A year ago he was unknown as a writer, but this month his stories have appeared simultaneously and rather astonishingly in five different magazines, spread across the continent and across several categories of literary publishing.

One story was published in the May 19 issue of The New Yorker, and others appear in current issues of Prairie Fire (from Winnipeg), Grain (from Saskatoon), Zoetrope (from San Francisco) and Harper's (from New York). It's a one-man shock-and-awe invasion of North American literature.

Bezmozgis (the name combines Russian with Latvian and means, roughly, "without a brain") was born 29 years ago in Riga and came to Canada with his parents in 1980. He did a degree in literature at McGill and a masters in film at the University of Southern California. He's shown two short films at festivals -- L.A. Mohel, about professional circumcisers in California (one of them known as "Mohel to the Stars") and The Diamond Nose, about a boy with the world's biggest nose. Last year he spent six months on the Toronto staff of the Documentary Channel, for which he's now finishing an 80-minute film on the recruitment of law graduates by major firms.

Dr. Vivian Rakoff, who has encountered many immigrants in his Toronto psychiatric practice and himself came here from South Africa, said in a TV documentary some years ago: "Every act of immigration is like suffering a brainstroke: One has to learn to walk again, to talk again, to move around the world again and, probably most difficult of all, one has to learn to re-establish a sense of community." He might have been speaking of the Bermans or their friends the Nahumovskys, of whom Mark Berman recalls: "They were alone, they were older, they were stupefied by the demands of language."

Mark's parents bring a kind of desperation to their study of English at George Brown City College. Mark also finds it hard: "That first spring, even though most of what was said around me remained a mystery, a thin rivulet of meaning trickled into my cerebral catch basin and collected into a little pool of knowledge."

Like the author's father, Roman is a trained coach and fitness instructor. In the Harper's story, Roman Berman, Massage Therapist, he's working in a chocolate bar factory while desperately studying half-understood English textbooks to get registered as a masseur. On the day he's to take the exam, he vomits up his breakfast, then leaves the apartment stolidly, "as if he were going off to war."

As Russian Jews in the 1980s, Mark says, "we were still a cause. We had good PR. We could trade on our history." A prosperous doctor invites the Bermans to Sabbath dinner at his house, obviously out of charity. It's a humiliating evening, but the doctor's house interests them: "It was fully detached. This was two substantial steps beyond our means. Between our apartment and a fully detached house loomed the intermediate townhouse and the semi-detached house. A fully detached house was the ultimate accomplishment."

Zoetrope: All-Story, a quarterly journal, was founded in 1997 by Francis Ford Coppola, partly to encourage writing that might become the basis of films. And sure enough, The Second Strongest Man, the Bezmozgis story in Zoetrope, sounds like the foundation of a terrific film. In the 1980s, the Bermans learn that a weightlifter whom Roman coached in Latvia is coming to Toronto for an international competition. With him, as usual, comes his KGB minder, sent along to make sure he doesn't defect.

The KGB thug invades the existence of the Bermans like the brimstone smell of an old nightmare. He vividly revives Roman's well-founded terror, which the little boy senses. At one point the KGB man bangs on the wrestler's hotel door. Roman, out of earshot, says, "The KGB, they know how to knock on a door." The wrestler replies, "Especially that one. A true Soviet patriot. A thousand trips to Siberia have begun with his fist on a door."

When finally the KGB man goes away, Roman says to his son: "Don't ever forget. This is why we left. So you never have to know people like him." Bezmozgis eloquently describes the poverty and anxiety that beset refugees in Canada, but in a few quick strokes he outlines the horror they left behind.

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