BooksWeekend

David Bezmozgis’s Strangers in a Strange Land

Nostalgia and despair form the emotional undercurrent of these stories about the afterlife of an immigrant childhood.

In the title story of David Bezmozgis’s Immigrant City, which, like much of Bezmozgis’s work, is set in Toronto, the narrator, a Latvian-born father of three little girls, seemingly modeled on the author, sets out to secure a new car door to replace the one he banged up, which he finds listed online for sale by one Mohamed Abdi Mohamed. The journey from the narrator’s own “gentrifying neighborhood” to Mohamed’s apartment involves traveling by streetcar, subway, and bus to the city’s outer limits. Stepping off the bus, the narrator is choked up by recollections of his own childhood as an immigrant in a neighborhood much like Mohamed’s. This sentiment, a cross between nostalgia and despair, forms the emotional undercurrent of the stories in this collection, whose ostensible focus is the afterlife of the immigrant childhood, but whose gaze is fixed steadfastly on the past.

In “A New Gravestone For an Old Grave,” Victor, who was also born in Latvia, but who immigrated to Los Angeles with his family as a child, is sent back to the old country to attend to some family business. More specifically, at the behest of his father, Victor is charged with overseeing the erection of a new gravestone on the 25-year-old grave of his grandfather, in an old Jewish cemetery. Not surprisingly, things don’t go as planned. But the plot in this story, as with many in this collection, is secondary to its evocation of the search for an ever-elusive sense of home. Arriving in Latvia, Victor finds himself in the uncanny position of one who “had returned to the city of his birth,” only to find that “no place had ever seemed less familiar.”

The central characters in Immigrant City are mostly Jewish men in their 40s and 50s who left the Soviet Union as child refugees and grew up in immigrant neighborhoods in Canada and the US, and who now find themselves inexplicably drawn to a past they spent decades trying to escape. It’s a past that Bezmozgis, who was born in Latvia and immigrated with his family to Toronto in 1980, knows well, one that he has mined for nearly two decades, and which he brought to life most memorably in his first book, the highly acclaimed 2004 Natasha. The linked stories in Natasha follow Mark Berman as he navigates his fraught coming of age against the backdrop of Toronto’s Russian-Jewish immigrant milieu and his own family’s immigrant experience, marked by financial strain, linguistic and cultural barriers, and a pervasive sense of ill-belonging.

Fans of Natasha may be pleased to learn that Mark Berman appears in this collection’s “Childhood,” accompanying his precocious and difficult eight-year-old son on the son’s first appointment with a psychologist. As we might expect, the visit reveals more about Mark than it tells either him, or the reader, about the ostensible patient, his son. Alas, this story, like many in this collection fail to live up to the expectations set by Natasha. Bezmozgis has deservedly been praised for understated prose, characterized by taut, crisp sentences and dialogue that evokes feeling without veering into sentimental hyperbole. Examples of this abound in Natasha — from “Tapka,” about a momentary lapse of judgment on the part of two small children that irrevocably alters family ties, to “An Animal to the Memory” in which a mischievous young Mark is rebuked by his Hebrew school rabbi and commanded to proclaim his Jewish identity aloud, “So that my uncles will hear you in Treblinka!” In both of these stories, as in most (though decidedly not all) of those included in Natasha, the stakes are high; one has the sense that what is being negotiated is identity itself, and the very possibility of a future.

This is not the case with Immigrant City, which leaves the reader unsure of what, if anything, is at stake. When, after investing a great deal of time and emotional energy trying to solve a family mystery, the narrator of “Little Rooster” finally unearths the truth, the discovery brings cold comfort. As he tells his co-conspirator: “it doesn’t matter … it’s all past.” This sense of ennui pervades nearly every story in this collection, and is the book’s most prominent—and unfortunate—effect.

One wonders whether this is in part the result of the book’s unrelenting backwards gaze, a paradoxical stance for the characters in this book, and, one might argue, for Bezmozgis himself, still a relatively young writer. As the narrator of a story fitting titled “The Way It Used to Be,” elegantly quips, what afflicts him is a penchant for “looking back with a longing equal to the longing with which you had once looked ahead.” It’s a poignant description, but also an ironically damning one for an author who arrived on the scene, as the New York Times review of Natasha put it, “with hype no young writer should be cursed with.”

Still, for all their flaws these stories are not without a certain charm, particularly in their evocation of that curious entity, the “immigrant city.” Taken together, these stories convey a profound sense of shared estrangement that binds humanity together, all of us having been, at one point or another, strangers in a foreign land.

Immigrant City (2019) by David Bezmozgis is published by HarperCollins and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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