The year is 1978, and the Krasnansky clan is newly arrived in Rome from Riga. They—along with hundreds of other Jews who have managed to wiggle out of the Soviet Union—will stay there while they wait for visas to North America, living on a stipend provided by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The period is something of a bubble between two lives, a chance for the family to cast a gaze backward, to decide which parts of themselves to shed before going forward, and to practise hustling—capitalism, after all, lies ahead.
This delicious drama of ambivalence and excitement is offered up by three sources. The lovely and serious Polina, a self-described “incorrigible proletarian,” has left a disapproving father, cherished sister and bewildered first husband in Latvia. Her new husband is Alec, the younger of the two Krasnansky brothers, a free spirit who coasts through life on his good looks and quick wit. His interest in the free world lies largely in its promise of “more freedom to bumble.” Alec’s father Samuil, meanwhile, once a proud party member and decorated war vet, is loath to give up his allegiance to the Soviet Union.
Bezmozgis has wrapped his first novel in the essence of Russian Jews, from their tsuris (suffering) to their sarcasm. Samuil’s crony, Josef Roidman, whose family is trying to bring him to Canada, says that if you listened to his son, “you were liable to believe that Pierre Trudeau’s greatest concerns were what to do about Quebec and what to do about Roidman.” The vigour of the book’s characters is achieved in the remarkable way Bezmozgis puts words together. At a low moment, Polina reflects that she has “passed through life like a knife through smoke”—little has adhered to her. How wrong she is. Polina and company are as “sticky” as they come, and so, in their wake, is a rich corner of Jewish and Soviet history.