Originally published in the Jerusalem Post (July 1, 2004).
Some books have lines so funny or poignant or true that they inspire you to phone a friend and read them sentences, paragraphs even. Natasha, a collection of short stories by David Bezmozgis, is not one of those books. Natasha won’t make you want to share sentences, or even paragraphs; you’ll want to share whole stories–and not because the stories are funny or poignant or true, but because they’re all three.
Natasha might also inspire you to rethink what you thought you knew about publishing. Here is a slim volume of stories by an author with no previous titles who received Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s first ever pre-publication author tour. Here is fiction lauded and celebrated for its merit, despite its size, despite its genre. Here is a book that deserves all the praise that is sure to be heaped upon it.
Lovers of fiction: You are free to rejoice.
Coming to (North) America
David Bezmozgis was born in Latvia in 1973. Seven years later, he emigrated to Toronto with his family. The linked stories in Natasha chronicle the Canadian acclimation of a similar family, the Bermans, and the tales are narrated by Bezmozgis’s alter-ego, Mark Berman.
In the volume’s first story, "Tapka," we’re told that–like Bezmozgis–Mark arrived in Toronto in 1980, and his youth makes him the perfect narrator. He is Canadian enough to communicate the plight of his Soviet parents, and Soviet enough to discover anew the Western things we take for granted.
Indeed, Bezmozgis reminds us why immigrants make such wonderful narrators. Narrators are observers; they hover above stories. Immigrants, as outsiders, are perfectly suited for this role. This, of course, evokes thoughts of the great Jewish-American immigrant fiction. The parallels run deep, and the centrality of the child narrator is one of the most important. In fact, in the first few stories, Mark is the same age as David Schearl, the protagonist of Henry Roth’s seminal novel Call It Sleep.
However, Bezmozgis’s immigrant narrator is able to observe something Schearl couldn’t: affluent, established North American Jewry. Bezmozgis is particularly sharp about this community’s strange relationship with suffering, notably its preoccupation with the Holocaust.
Wealth and Woes
In the wonderfully titled "Roman Berman Massage Therapist," for example, Mark narrates his father’s attempt to open a massage parlor. The Bermans set out to create a flyer advertising the opening, but disagree on what to include in the copy. Mr. Berman wants to stress his experience training Olympic athletes in Latvia; Mrs. Berman, on the other hand, "believed that his strongest selling point was his status as a Soviet refugee. The most important appeal, she said, was to guilt and empathy."
After a week of no responses, the Bermans get a call from a Dr. Kornblum, who invites them over for dinner. During dessert, Kornblum pulls out a family album and speaks of his ancestors in Poland. Mark narrates: "I had to go to the washroom and Kornblum said there was one downstairs and three upstairs, take your pick. He then turned a page in the album and pointed out everyone the Nazis had killed."
An even sharper look at the ironic relationship between four-bathroom Jews and Jewish suffering is presented in "An Animal to the Memory," which describes Mark’s Hebrew School delinquency on Holocaust Remembrance Day ("which we called Holocaust Day for short").
The school principal berates Mark for failing to appreciate the solemnity of the day, for "choking another Jew at a memorial for the Holocaust." The principal believes this misbehavior reflects Mark’s ambivalent Jewish identity, so he forces him to scream: "I am a Jew."
Of course, of the two characters here, only one left the Soviet Union because of anti-Semitism, but Bezmozgis doesn’t need to state this punch line explicitly. The absurdity of the scene speaks for itself. Indeed, Bezmozgis forces us to ponder the difference between a Canadian Jewish community steeped in Judaism and defined by a fear of annihilation and a Russian Jewish community ignorant of most things Jewish, yet defined by actual anti-Semitism.
Still, Natasha is much more than an outsider’s look at the culture of North American Jewry. Bezmozgis’s prose is virtually flawless, simple and fluid.
The title story is a classic sexual coming-of-age tale, chock full of hilarity, honesty and loss. Even the final two stories, which are the weakest in the volume, have sentences to marvel at. In "Minyan," Bezmozgis writes of nursing home residents who come to pray: "Most of the old Jews came because they were drawn by the nostalgia for ancient cadences. I came because I was drawn by the nostalgia for old Jews. In each case, the motivation was not tradition but history."