How Free is Free?

  • Pablo Urbanyi (Author)
    Silver. Cormorant Books
  • David Bezmozgis (Author)
    The Free World. HarperCollins
Reviewed by Nanette Norris

In 1978, Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, and President Jimmy Carter of the United States met to carve out the Camp David Accords; Pope John Paul II was elected; Soviet Jews were being granted exit visas and looking for sponsorship around the world. This is the official history: the real history of a people lies in the delicate tracings of memory.

With the timelessness that Freud says is characteristic of memory, David Bezmozgis’ The Free World opens a window on the life of these Jews in exile—the daily details, the strands of life which link a difficult present, as emigrés passing through Rome, to a past in communist Russia. Frame by frame emerges remembrance of betrayals, strip-searches, infidelities, childhood innocence, and murder, blending into a present of humiliation, resignation, criminality, and the myriad human compromises that join the past with the present in interlocking layers.

Through it all one hears the voices of the people in transit: the father, Samuil— who watched his father die at the hands of the invading Germans—became a Revolutionary, shed blood for Russia, was an apostate, only to find himself out of place as an emigré, a man who “could no longer bear to look at the past—or the future. His revolution was over.” Emma, his wife, the quiet lynchpin around whom the chaos of poor choices swirl. Polina, who was neither forced nor coerced to leave Russia, but chose to marry, to marry a Jew, and to leave, with cautious hope. Her emotional entanglements ring true. And of course Alec, of whom we see the most, and for whom we bleed the most. Always somehow second to his brother Karl, who is “tireless and liable to appear anywhere, selling anything,” he draws ever nearer to the flame of illicit dealings in the emigré underground. The Free World is rich with memories of displanted Russian Jews struggling to define themselves on their journey from East to West.

Pablo Urbanyi’s Silver is best appreciated in light of Kafka’s “A Report for an Academy,” which it follows fairly closely and builds upon. Like Kafka’s “free ape,” Silver recounts how he was captured, how he came to live with Diane and her husband Gregory, and how he learned human behaviour. Like Kafka’s ape, Silver accommodates himself to a socially acceptable existence as a wheelchair-bound drunkard, seemingly neutered and insensate. What happens in the middle, however, is both a hoot and a testimony to the ability of the translator, Montreal writer and poet Hugh Hazelton, to seamlessly render the original Spanish.

The more human Silver becomes, the more the humans regress, until the narrative becomes a French farce, funny, poignant, and disgusting, all at the same time, as Gregory comes home and finds Diane and Silver . . . well, I won’t spoil it for you. Needless to say, this is far too human for the average misanthropic society, so Silver is carted off to a new cage where he waits to be rescued and freed once more.

Diane is loosely based upon Dian Fossey, the American zoologist and gorilla researcher who was murdered in 1985 in the mountain forests of Rwanda. The tongue-in-cheek association between the woman who loved gorillas and the ape-lover is, in this reader’s view, not as funny or ironic as it was perhaps meant to be. Neither, in my mind, is the association between Silver’s next rescuer, Jane, and the British primatologist, Jane Goodall, whom I met when she came to the University of Guelph to speak to a group of schoolchildren about her work with the chimpanzees. When one considers how this soft-spoken, unassuming woman has bridged the gap of understanding between humans and primates, her caricature in Silver is nothing short of pillory.

However, the nuts-and-berries amongst us who want to return all beings to their so-called “natural” surroundings take note: it just is not that easy. Silver reminds us, in the most amusing way possible, of the complexity that is the human animal, for whom “natural” is “unnatural.”

Both Silver and The Free World encourage us to take a hard look at what freedom really means, how we perceive it, mould it, aspire to it, and, finally, compromise for it, in order to achieve some semblance of what it means to be a free individual.



This review “How Free is Free?” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 129-30.

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