What If?

David Bezmozgis in the Harvard Map Collection, where he traced the 1919 routes of the Canadian railroad system.David Bezmozgis in the Harvard Map Collection, where he traced the 1919 routes of the Canadian railroad system.
Lynne Weiss

David Bezmozgis RI ’12, the Lisa Goldberg Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute, likes to think about “what ifs.” Just a few days before we spoke in his tidy office in a corner of Byerly Hall, he had attended a talk at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies featuring writers who were finalists for Russia’s Debut Prize. “They all aspire to have their work translated into English,” he said, noting that had his family not immigrated to Canada when he was six, his situation as a writer might have been much like theirs: talented, young, little known outside Russia.

As it is, Bezmozgis writes in English, is widely published, and has won recognition in Canada and the United States. In 2010, he was included in the New Yorker’s 20 under 40 Summer Fiction issue.

His first novel, The Free World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), was described as “self-assured, elegant, and perceptive” by the New York Times. “And now here I am at Radcliffe on a stipend,” he said. His tone was one of mild awe at his good fortune.

The “what ifs” are not limited to Bezmozgis’s own life. During his time at Radcliffe, he wrote a short screenplay that postulates the survival of Alexei Romanov, the youngest son of Czar Nicholas. The screenplay, which Bezmozgis describes as “part Wild West adventure story and part alternative history,” portrays the young prince being pursued by Bolshevik hit men as he flees across Canada in 1919. Bezmozgis wanted to know the exact routes of the Canadian railroad system in that era. “I was able to go to the Harvard Map Collection,” he said, as he unrolled a tube of paper with near-reverent excitement to reveal a map of 1919 Canada some two feet wide. He traced the red and yellow lines showing the rail routes with his finger and said, “This shows it all—where they would have gone, the towns where they stopped.”

Writer David Bezmozgis RI '12 studies a map in the Harvard Map Collection for a screenplay he's writing. The Harvard Map Collection is the oldest in America.Writer David Bezmozgis RI '12 studies a map in the Harvard Map Collection for a screenplay he's writing. The Harvard Map Collection is the oldest in America.

Another exciting find was a treasure trove of Soviet magazines from the 1940s and 1950s. Davis Center Collection librarian Hugh Truslow helped Bezmozgis find these in the archives, and he used them to write a profile of the Soviet weightlifter Grigory Novak for an anthology on great Jewish athletes. “I don’t know of anyplace else that would have had those resources,” Bezmozgis said.

The novel that has been the focus of his time at Radcliffe is another “what if.” “The Betrayers” centers on an imagined encounter between a prominent Soviet Jewish dissident and the man who denounced him some 30 years earlier. Conversations with Institute fellows Emma Wasserman, the Mary I. Bunting Institute Fellow this year, and Jesse Rainbow, a graduate fellow, both biblical scholars, have enriched Bezmozgis’s thinking about martyrdom and uncompromising moral positions.

His fascination with “what if” doesn’t mean Bezmozgis isn’t grateful for what is. “I’ve felt very fortunate to have this time,” he said of his fellowship. The wry smile behind his neatly trimmed beard widened briefly. “I plan to milk it for all it’s worth.”

Lynne Weiss is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Common, the Boston Sunday Globe, and elsewhere.

Photography by Kathleen Dooher

Excerpt from The Free World by David Bezmozgis

On her first day at work, Giovanni and Carla, his wife, gave Polina posterboard and multicolored markers and gestured at the assorted merchandise. She composed signs in Russian and posted them in the window display. That same afternoon she made her first sale to a young man from Mogilev. He and his wife came into the shop and wandered cautiously between the narrow aisles.

—His whole life he’s had one dream, the wife said.

—A brown suede blazer, he said.

Polina barely knew her way around the store, but she found a rack of suede blazers, some of which were brown, and one of which fit the man from Mogilev. They went through the motions of haggling; Polina conferred with Giovanni and Carla; the Italians wrote a figure on a piece of paper; and the man from Mogilev realized his life’s ambition.

—That’s it, now he can die, his wife said.

—If I die, bury me in it, he said.

She made her second sale not long after to an older Italian man, squarely built, dressed like a laborer. Carla greeted him familiarly and Giovanni saluted him from behind the cash register, but the man explained that he wished to speak with Polina.  Polina didn’t immediately understand what was being asked of her. There was an awkward moment when everyone seemed ill at ease, but then the man addressed Polina in Russian and relieved the tension. He apologized for imposing upon her, and for his shaky Russian. Twenty-five years earlier he had been a university student in Leningrad. Since then, he’d had few opportunities to practice the language. Polina told him that he managed remarkably well considering.

—I was there a long time ago, the man said. I was there when Stalin died.

He recalled the ranks of people in the street, old women and schoolchildren in tears. For the modest privilege of speaking to her in Russian, the man bought a belt and a pair of sandals.

Before he left, the man shook hands firmly with Giovanni, and Polina noticed two things that had previously escaped her. One was the collage of photographs and newspaper clippings that Giovanni had tacked onto the wall behind the cash register: a posed photo of a soccer team, above a small maroon and orange banner; newspaper clippings showing the faces of smiling men, whom Polina took to be politicians; other clippings showing grainy snapshots of younger men, whom Polina took to be either criminals or victims; and framed portraits of historical eminences. Of all these, Polina recognized only MarxEngels, the stern two-headed deity of her girlhood imagination.

The other thing Polina noticed was that the outer three fingers on Giovanni’s right hand were misshapen, as from an industrial accident.

Back at the apartment, when she mentioned these things to Lyova, he explained that Giovanni and Carla were active in the Italian Communist Party. Communists and merchants—in Italy, the two were not mutually exclusive.

About his fingers, Giovanni told her himself. After she had worked at the store for several weeks, he saw her looking at his hand; he lifted it, turned it back to palm, and declared, Fascisti.

There was no other talk of politics. The Russian signs in the window drew people; others came from word of mouth. Polina and her employers settled into a comfortable rhythm. The hours blended together. Walking to and from work, she seemed for the first time to see the city. Details came to her peripherally, when she wasn’t looking. Now when she came home she told Alec about a marble hand incorporated into the brickwork of a wall in San Lorenzo, or the statue of a king tucked under a palm tree in the Giardini Quirinale, or the grafitti on the store facing theirs that read Hitler Per Mille Anni.

Excerpted from The Free World: A Novel, by David Bezmozgis, published in paperback by Picador USA. Copyright © 2011 by David Bezmozgis. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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