A Long Day at the Chocolate Bar Factory

James Wood

  • ‘Natasha’ and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis
    Cape, 147 pp, £10.99, August 2004, ISBN 0 224 07125 4

Chekhov may be divine, but he is responsible for much sinning on earth. The contemporary short story is essentially sub-Chekhovian. It is most obviously indebted to what Shklovsky called Chekhov’s ‘negative endings’: the way his stories expire into ellipses, or seem to end in the middle of a thought – ‘It was starting to rain.’ This is so invisibly part of the grammar of contemporary short fiction that we no longer notice how peculiarly abrupt, how monotonously fragmentary much of what we read has become. Consistent with this abruptness is the contemporary idea that the short story should present itself as a victim of its own confusion, a poised bewilderment, in which nothing can really be sorted out; the necessary vehicle for this bewilderment is the first-person narrator, who must get along amid modern confusions without the help of an all-knowing, third-person authorial patron. Chekhov’s simpleness and lucidity – it is easier to see his lucidity than to sense his complexity and lyricism – seem to cast their shadow over the quick, skinned, blank language of so much American short fiction: a prose whose thin roof often houses, unsurprisingly, characters who are themselves rather blank and affectless, as if stunned by the hammer blows of the age. And Chekhovian irony also finds its debased correspondence in contemporary writing; though where Chekhov’s irony is often savage, modern irony is often merely all-nullifying.

It says much for David Bezmozgis’s considerable talents that his apparently skinny, crafty, ironic stories, narrated entirely in the first person in simple, unmetaphorical prose, and fond of abrupt closures, should seem to dip so obviously into the common pool and yet avoid, on the whole, the commonest failings. These tales sometimes surrender to an easy irony or a convenient blankness of narration, but the best of them are passionately full of life: above all, they are true examples of storytelling. Here, Bezmozgis’s great advantage, other than his literary skills – remarkable for a 31-year-old writer publishing his first book – is his material: he writes exclusively about recent Russian-Jewish immigrants to Canada, trailing with ardent curiosity his own world and the world of his parents and grandparents. (Bezmozgis was born in Riga in 1973, and moved to Canada in 1980: the stories are chronologically loyal to that history and dedicated to his parents.)

The glamour of geography plays its part in fiction. Some of the pleasure we get from reading Conrad, say, lies in the way in which he strings an exotic sketch of a minor character along a rope of exile. Stein in Lord Jim, for instance, with his collections of butterflies and ‘catacombs of beetles’, is said to have taken part in the revolutions of 1848, then fled to Trieste, and then to Tripoli, ‘with a stock of cheap watches to hawk about’. Bezmozgis is similarly alive to what immigration and exile can do for him as a writer. He enjoys galvanising his paragraphs with little jolts of far-flung historical reference. In ‘Roman Berman, Massage Therapist’, the narrator describes his father, who had worked in Latvia for the Ministry of Sport, and had judged weightlifting contests: ‘My father was dressed in his blue Hungarian suit – veteran of international weightlifting competitions from Tallinn to Sochi.’

Bezmozgis knows that the Western reader will roll cities like Tallinn and Sochi on his tongue, as alien grapes, enjoying their strange flavours. In general, he is expert at prodding forward his stories with unexpected exoticisms; or indeed, opening them that way. ‘An Animal to the Memory’ begins: ‘On the railway platform in Vienna, my mother and aunt forbade my cousin and me from saying goodbye to our grandparents.’ And ‘The Second Strongest Man’ starts: ‘In the winter of 1984, as my mother was recovering from a nervous breakdown and my father’s business hovered precipitously between failure and near failure, the international weightlifting championships were held at the Toronto Convention Centre. One evening the phone rang and a man invited my father to serve on the panel of judges.’ It is hard to resist such wide and dashing beckonings.

Bezmozgis is not just a good opener, however, but a very good continuer. He has a way of making his sentences jump from one to the other, as if the ordinary connective tissue has broken down:

Night after night for more than a year, my father tortured himself with medical texts and dictionaries. After a long day at the chocolate bar factory he would come home and turn on the lamp in the bedroom. He would eat his soup with us in the kitchen, but he’d take the main course into the bedroom, resting his plate on a rickety Soviet stool. The work was difficult. He was approaching fifty, and the English language was more an enemy than an instrument. In Latvia, after resigning from the Ministry of Sport, my father had made a living as a masseur in the sanatoriums along the Baltic coast. He’d needed no accreditation, only some minimal training and the strength of his connections. But in the new country, to get his certificate, he was forced to memorise complex medical terminology and to write an eight-hour exam in a foreign language.

This is the first paragraph of ‘Roman Berman, Massage Therapist’. It may look like simple enough prose, but its jumpy vitality has to do with its subtle manner of starting and stopping, and of secreting an eccentric fact in almost every sentence. The first sentence tells us about Roman’s ‘torture’ by dictionary; the second that he works in a chocolate bar factory (an oddly childish, fairytale aura attends this fact); the third slips in the detail that he rests his plate on a ‘Soviet’ stool (what would that look like?); the fifth that English was his ‘enemy’; the sixth that Roman worked as a masseur along ‘the Baltic coast’. Bezmozgis has surely learned from Isaac Babel, even if his sentences lack the blazing oddity of the Odessa master. He has learned from Babel how to turn his sentences into provocations and near exaggerations – ‘torture’, ‘enemy’, ‘Soviet stool’ – so that the prose becomes a battle of bright propositions.

One of the characters in this book is said, indeed, to be ‘right out of the pages of Babel’, and Bezmozgis’s funny and vibrant portraits of Baltic Jews, Soviet weightlifters, whorish cousins, weeping aunts and sourly fierce rabbinical teachers have a theatrical pungency strongly reminiscent of Babel, filtered perhaps through the early Philip Roth. This collection of linked stories is narrated by Mark Berman, a little boy in the first four tales, and a teenager in the final three. Over the course of the book we get to know Mark’s parents, Bella and Roman, and various relatives and friends. In Latvia, Roman’s life had been comfortable, professionally at least. As well as working for the Ministry of Sport, he was a head administrator at the Riga Dynamo gymnasium. In 1979, the Bermans left Latvia for Canada, making their home in a section of Toronto already populated by Russian-Jewish immigrants:

My parents, Baltic aristocrats, took an apartment at 715 Finch fronting a ravine and across from an elementary school – one respectable block away from the Russian swarm. We lived on the fifth floor, my cousin, aunt and uncle directly below us on the fourth. Except for the Nahumovskys, a couple in their fifties, there were no other Russians in the building. For this privilege, my parents paid twenty extra dollars a month in rent.

Roman Berman’s early years in Canada are much more arduous and uncertain than anything he experienced in the Soviet Union. He and his wife speak almost no English, and their isolation makes them childlike, reliant, as immigrant parents often are, on their more adaptable children, who become their doves, pushed out to test the height of the floodwaters. ‘I was nine, and there were many things I did not tell them, but there was nothing they would not openly discuss in front of me, often soliciting my opinion. They were strangers in the country, and they recognised that the place was less strange to me, even though I was only a boy.’

In ‘The Second Strongest Man’, Mark is excited because he remembers how Sergei Federenko, the gold medallist, used to visit the Bermans in Riga, and how he used to lift Mark’s entire bed, with the boy in it, high off the ground. Yet when Sergei competes in Toronto, he only gets silver. Later in the story, one of the members of the delegation says that Roman is lucky because he has such a good life in Canada, where even the beggars on the street are wearing Levi’s jeans and Adidas running shoes. Roman replies that appearances are deceptive, that he often thinks of returning to Latvia, and that ‘every day is a struggle.’ His friend refuses to believe him: ‘I see your car. I see your apartment. I see how you struggle. Believe me, your worst day is better than my best.’ The story delicately holds together its different depictions of shifting hierarchies and the changed fortune that exile brings: the Soviet gold medallist is only a silver medallist in the West, and no longer the idol he once was; yet the struggling Russian immigrant, whose life seems to be day upon day of hard graft, is envied by the visiting Soviet.

Bezmozgis has a compassionate irony; the compassion irrigates his irony, which might get a little dry without it, and the irony crisps his occasional descent into Jewish burlesque. ‘An Animal to the Memory’ is a good example of the latter. It concerns Mark’s troubled days at his Jewish school. He has been caught fighting, having already been cautioned by the headmaster, Rabbi Gurvich. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, the schoolboys bring in all kinds of relevant objects, artworks and memorabilia, in order to build appropriate installations and shrines. Bezmozgis is tartly satirical at the school’s expense: ‘We had crayon drawings done by children in Theresienstadt. We had a big map of Europe with multicoloured pins and accurate statistics. Someone’s grandfather donated his striped Auschwitz pyjamas.’ (There is something very wicked about that scandalously soft word, ‘pyjamas’.) On the day itself, the rabbi sings to the memory of the six million, and Mark feels the voice reach into ‘that place where my mother said I was supposed to have the thing called my “Jewish soul”’. But Mark ends up fighting again, and breaks one of the memorial displays, and is soon in the rabbi’s office. A story that seems to be in danger of becoming a Jewish romp – rebellious boy larks around with Holocaust memorabilia, is scolded by hideous rabbi – is saved by the irony of its final paragraph. The rabbi grips Mark very hard, and forces him to shout out that he is a Jew and is unashamed to be one. The humiliation makes the little boy cry, at which the rabbi bitterly remarks: ‘Now, Berman . . . now maybe you understand what it is to be a Jew.’ Does this mean Mark has a ‘Jewish soul’ or not? The story breaks off.

The best examples of Bezmozgis’s ironic compassion are to be found in ‘Roman Berman, Massage Therapist’, and in the collection’s last and most successful story, ‘Minyan’. The former recounts, with rueful comedy, Roman’s attempts to set himself up in Toronto as a massage therapist. An office is secured, and advertisements are placed, and everyone waits for the phone to ring. The only people phoning, of course, are family members: ‘Everybody called to see whether anybody had called.’ Eventually a mysterious physician, Dr Kornblum, phones. He invites the Bermans over to dinner at his large house. He and his wife have an interest in helping Russian-Jewish immigrants, especially refuseniks. Mrs Berman bakes an apple cake to take along. But the dinner is inconclusive, and obscurely disappointing. Despite his promises, it is not clear if Dr Kornblum will refer his patients to Roman’s services. Bezmozgis uses the apple cake as the story’s ironically pathetic symbol. Mrs Kornblum returns it, uneaten, to Mrs Berman at the end of the evening, because the Kornblums keep kosher. So the Bermans leave the house exactly as they arrived. And ‘it was unclear whether nothing or everything had changed.’ The story ends here, in proper contemporary fashion, denying us the knowledge of Roman’s eventual career and prosperity. But this is an example of a Chekhovian ‘negative ending’ perfectly placed, for we leave the story sharing the Bermans’ own uncertainty, like them arrested in potential on the Kornblums’ front lawn.

‘Minyan’ seems different in kind and depth from anything else in the book; it is tempting to speculate that Bezmozgis wrote these stories sequentially, and that this last fruit is just a little riper than its siblings. It leaves the world of the Bermans to concentrate on two old men, Herschel and Itzik. Herschel is a Holocaust survivor from Lithuania, and Itzik, the man described as walking straight out of the pages of Babel, was a taxi driver in Odessa. They are both widowers living in a Toronto apartment block. When Herschel’s wife died, he moved into the apartment of Itzik, who was already widowed. They have become dear companions.

Mark Berman gets to know Herschel and Itzik because his grandfather has recently moved into the same complex of subsidised housing for elderly Jews (for which there is a long waiting list.) Mark quickly learns that the residents are suspicious of Itzik and Herschel; they disapprove of the couple, hint that they may be homosexual, and all but ignore them. Itzik had a son, but Herschel had no children, because his wife refused to have any. After the Holocaust, Herschel tells Mark, there were two types of people: ‘There were those who felt a responsibility to ensure the future of the Jewish people, and then there were those, like Herschel’s wife, who had been convinced that the world was irrefutably evil.’

Itzik dies, and in an extraordinary scene his son, long estranged, arrives at the funeral. Bezmozgis provides one of his unexpected lurches, in which the son suddenly turns on the memory of his hated father, a man the reader has known only as a shrunken, fond, enfeebled widower:

He turned back toward Itzik’s grave. He spent seven years in jail, my father, did you know that? I have brothers and sisters all over Russia. I don’t even know how many. For him nothing was forbidden. That was my father, you understand? He raised his fist to his face. He was like this, Itzik’s son said. He drove his fist into a snowbank. He looked at me to see if I understood. I nodded that I understood. Like this, he repeated, his fist in the snowbank.

After Itzik’s death, other elderly Jews start agitating to claim his apartment. It is inconceivable, they say, that Herschel would be allowed to stay in a subsidised apartment just because he lived with Itzik; he is not a relative (and besides, he may be homosexual).

‘Minyan’ is poignantly about the savagery of survival – and of survivorship – and about what we leave after ourselves. Itzik, the tough bully from Odessa, was loved, it seems, only by Herschel. He was a man who ran his own business and ‘never asked anyone for anything’. His only blood survivor, his son, hates his memory. Herschel will leave nothing behind him because his late wife refused to bear children. Thus the two old exiles mournfully cancel each other out, leaving behind nothing worth having. Except their apartment, which is only rented anyway, and over which other tough survivors, the victims of pogroms and holocausts and inexhaustible exile, are fighting. It is a sad and affecting story, whose placement at the end of this often ebullient and warmly comic book bathes what has gone before in grave twilight.