NATASHA AND OTHER STORIES
By David Bezmozgis. Farrar Straus Giroux. 147 pp. $18
The Russian punk-ska group Leningrad, whose foul-mouthed, raggedy lead singer, Shnur ("Cord"), often appears in concert completely naked, once wrote a cycle of songs whose titles are the first names of women -- "Sveta," "Lyuba," "Lyolya," "Tanya." The songs' plots are fairly generic. "Tanya left me!" Shnur will yell, with feeling. "Now I'll hang out with the boys. . . . Tanya left me!" Shnur is not lamenting a particular Tanya, but rather all the Tanyas. And he is protesting the meager assortment of names that Russian parents have to give their daughters. Known for rousing its Russian-language crowds, Leningrad was recently denied entry to Estonia because authorities feared a post-concert riot.
I bring this up because David Bezmozgis's first collection of stories is called Natasha, and Shnur, were he a student of the contemporary short story, would not approve. Bezmozgis writes about Natasha as if she were a particular Natasha, and about his fictional immigrant family, the Bermans of Toronto, formerly of Riga, as if they were the only fictional immigrant family, and he, Bezmozgis, the first Russian Jew ever to produce a collection of pointedly ironic, realist stories about his childhood -- the difficulty of getting along with other kids, the trouble with his sad-sack immigrant parents, the humiliating ritual of visiting wealthy Jews and soliciting their sympathy.
This apparent authorial naivete could be a recipe for trouble -- or just the slow doom of a "warm" reception: a series of cloying reviews, followed by Jewish book awards, followed by oblivion. But Bezmozgis pulls it off. He has an understated, just-telling-it-like-it-happened style that, if not impressive, is remarkably self-assured; it is attuned to the stories he is telling, and its understatement is a function of the narrator's doubt. In "An Animal to the Memory," young Mark Berman is having trouble at Hebrew school. "After our move into the new neighborhood I had begun to affect a hoodlum persona," he tells us. "At school, I kept to myself, glowered in the hallways, and, with the right kind of provocation, punched people in the face."
Bezmozgis is sparing with his commas, and in the last part of that sentence he deploys them to great effect. This level of irony is about as much as he ever gives away with regard to his narrator's motivations or judgments. Bezmozgis is a deadpan artist. Some people in these stories are clearly pathetic, like the wealthy Kornblums who invite the Bermans over for dinner in "Roman Berman, Massage Therapist." But all the characters whom another writer might automatically despise, like the hyperbolic immigrant family who also comes to dinner that night, appear pretty impressive in their way. In that story, Dr. Harvey Kornblum, whose help the Bermans seek in launching Roman's massage business, turns the dinner into a competition, with the unspoken understanding that whoever wins his sympathy will receive his help. The other family claims to have been refuseniks; so Kornblum wants to know if the Bermans, too, were denied an exit visa by the Soviet authorities. "My mother hesitated a moment and then admitted that we had not been refuseniks. She knew some refuseniks, and we were almost refuseniks, but we were not refuseniks." At which point the father of the other immigrant family regales the table with florid tales of Soviet anti-Semitism. The Bermans are clearly outclassed.
There is a fine, quiet skepticism in this voice, which leaves us to fill in the blanks (though usually we don't have to strain too hard). Because the stories in Natasha are chronological, and the last two, where Berman is grown up, are by far the least effective, we can conclude that Bezmozgisian narrative irony is a great deal less interesting in the mind of an adult. The book is therefore at its best when the narrator cannot be expected to deal with the information provided, as in "An Animal to the Memory," again on a Jewish theme.
At Hebrew school, Mark's tough-guy act has caused him all sorts of problems, which finally come to a head during Holocaust Remembrance Day. As his class walks through the makeshift basement Holocaust memorial, one of his enemies pushes Mark from behind. He turns around and attacks the boy. The school's principal, Rabbi Gurvich, is out of his mind with rage. After school, he returns with Mark to the basement. "Berman," he declares, "a Nazi wouldn't do here what you did today." A ridiculous statement, and a slightly ridiculous situation: a Toronto rabbi instructing a Soviet Jew on anti-Semitism. He reduces little Berman to tears, leaving him amid the Holocaust relics donated by various grandparents. Then he pronounces the story's final line: "Now, Berman . . . now maybe you understand what it is to be a Jew."
And we are left to ask: What? What is it? Bezmozgis is silent. Gurvich might mean that being "Jewish" means being terrorized; or that it means having to assert yourself; or he might be spouting empty rhetoric, as adults often do. We have no idea, but the words resonate, and one senses that at some level Bezmozgis endorses them. The skeptic emerges as a quasi-sentimentalist. Bezmozgis is a pretty hard-nosed writer, but he will never be banned from Estonia. *
Keith Gessen is co-editor of n+1, a new journal of literature and politics.