Natasha and Other Stories
David Bezmozgis' hilarious--and profound--tales of an immigrant family in Canada.
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."