The Great White Russian North


Natasha and Other Stories
By David Bezmozgis
160 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giuroux. $18.

Nestled in the northern fingertips of Toronto lies a neighborhood of Russian Jewish immigrants called North York. This community rarely attracts press or publishers, but now it can claim a literary gem as its own: David Bezmozgis’s Natasha and Other Stories uses the Toronto experience as a frame for the classic immigration narrative.

The seven stories follow the Bermans – mother Bella, father Roman, and their son Mark – from English lessons to awkward Shabbat dinners to sexual deviance. Told through precocious Mark’s eyes, these stories impart first impressions that only familiarity teaches: Bezmozgis moved from Latvia to Toronto in 1980, and he lived in the same building in which the Bermans’ fictional dramas are set. The truism “Write what you know” glows in every sentence.

In a paragraph on the community’s buildings, Bezmozgis captures North York’s strong Russian character. He writes, “6030 Bathurst: insomniac scheming Odessa. Cedarcroft: reeking borscht in the hallways.” The setting becomes the base of the Bermans’ new life, if not the catalyst sparking drama. The stories use the backdrop as an inciting force that either causes damage or creates possibility.

In “Tapka,” six-year-old Mark’s rivalry with a cousin sets his family against another. Years later, after a strained education and several superficial relationships, Mark learns how to survive on his gut instincts. As the stories progress, his attitude begins to shift from apathetic to sympathetic—embracing a Jewish identity sparks an awakening in “An Animal to the Memory”; loving a sex-starved girl introduces Mark to fleeting passion in “Natasha.”

Bezmozgis' sparse writing parallels the Bermans’ simple desires. Using understated storytelling techniques and threadbare description, Bezmozgis paints pictures as realistic as they are foreign. A bully pushes Mark into a memorial candle during Holocaust Remembrance Day. Mark delicately teaches his lover how to smoke pot from a Gatorade bottle.

While Bezmozgis’ debut collection has been the talk of the Canadian literary scene, his work has also been featured in prominent American magazines such as Harper’s and The New Yorker. Crafted as tender snapshots of family relations, Natasha details the hardship ingrained in the immigration narrative. It isn’t just hard for these characters to be Jews in a gentile world – they must make the best of being Russian in Canada, a task that demands patience, flexibility, and social savvy.

Sometimes, though, the fates fall on a sunnier day. In “The Second Strongest Man,” happenstance brings a Latvian weightlifter – and a friend of Mark’s father – to Toronto for an international competition. In this longtime friend, Roman finds an ally strong in body and ego, and Mark discovers how weakness can invade the most solid of artifices.

If any story in this collection stands out for lingering long after being read, it is “Minyan.” At Mark’s grandfather’s retirement home, a death fractures the 10-man ritual of gathered prayer. Regret encumbers a mourning resident, as he confesses to Mark that his wife never wanted children because “after the Holocaust there were two types of people. There were those who felt a responsibility to ensure the future of the Jewish people, and then were those, like [my wife], who had been convinced that the world was irrefutably evil.” To Mark, the seniors resemble children, full of complaints and pettiness and unbridled wants. Subconsciously, though, he searches for the sensitivity behind the grumbling, and in the minyan ceremony he finds a unity unrecognizable outside chapel walls.

What hampers some stories, though, is an ending that often evokes the reader response, “That’s it?” Although Bezmozgis’s style is smartly understated, the last sentence often dangles like an unfinished thought. A few stories would have benefited with tighter tying of loose ends.

There is intriguing talent emerging from Bezmozgis’s pen, and it’s a pen worth watching. Running under the snappy dialogue and bare description are fiery emotions threatening to engulf normalcy. Borders melt away to reveal the human sacrifice dedicated to workday complacency, to a national mosaic. The players are Russian Jews but the model works for any outsiders. Bezmozgis has successfully applied his experience to the Bermans’ dramas, thereby sprinkling his stories with a well-loved ingredient: authenticity.

Discussion Question

Is the immigrant experience inherently unique for Jews, or does the Jewish model truly work for “any outsiders”? >>