Reading Natasha in North York

29 10 2010

Warning:  This post leans toward the autobiographical, and may be somewhat self indulgent.  Think carefully if this is going to be a problem.

Still here?

Ok.  First, two caveats: 1) I’m not in North York.  Not physically.  2) Wikipedia defines North York as “a dissolved municipality within the current city of Toronto.”   So actually, there is no North York.  It did exist at one time and I lived there.  But now all I’m left with the time-frozen flashbacks as they exist in my mind and in the mind of David Bezmozgis as he portrays them in his short story collection, Natasha.

I’m not sure that this would have concerned the collection’s Russian-Jewish protagonist, Mark Berman, and his parents.  They knew that they were in Toronto of course, and they were quite sure that they were in Canada. But they had no reason to know, or even care, that the place where they had found themselves on arriving from Riga via Vienna and Rome was, municipally speaking, North York.  But I knew.  I was born there and grew up there, so that for me, while Riga and Vienna and Rome were as close as the moon, North York was the world.

It’s difficult to convey the jolt of bizarre recognition I felt on reading the book’s opening line Goldfinch was flapping clotheslines, a tenement delirious with striving. Each word of this artful, seemingly innocent sentence seemed all wrong.    A little Twilight Zone moment. Let’s examine it closely:

Goldfinch – The same suburban Goldfinch street that I used to pass on the bus home from school everyday?  Is this street the stuff of literature????  You’ve got to be kidding.

Flapping clotheslines – I don’t remember any clotheslines.

Tenement – Excuse me?

Delirious – In the Toronto I remember, delirious people were hospitalized.

Striving – This sounds much too noble and heroic. Why the pathos?  Who had to strive in Toronto?

It dawned on me then that even though David Bezmozgis and I lived about a ten minute drive from each other (In the early eighties when the first stories of the book take place), we were seeing something very different. What for him and his family was a heady, if challenging adventure was for me, the most boring place in the universe; a place that, given the right weather on the right day, could drive a person to suicide.

As, like a virtual tourist being led through my own home, I read the stories, I often had to pause in incredulity. Bezmozgis had taken the suburban, concrete and neon landscape of my childhood and turned into the scene of heartbreaking drama (Tapka) sly tales about the meaning of Jewish identity (An Animal to the Memory), the subtle ambivalences of immigrant experience, (The Second Strongest Man) and suburban basement sex and drugs (Natasha ). Where was I when all this was happening, under my nose as it were?

But the story that I found most troubling was Roman Berman, Massage Therapist.   The story describes how Mark’s father passes an exam allowing him to work as a massage therapist. After father and son distribute advertising flyers, the family is invited for Friday night dinner at the house of the Kornblums. The experience is a bitter one.  Everything about the Kornblums reminds the Bermans that in this new life they are outsiders; poor, shabby, and relegated to the role of charity seekers.

As I read that story, I remembered how, on more than one occasion, my family also invited “Soviet Jews” for Friday night dinner.   That’s what we called them. Soviet Jews. All I knew of them was that they had lived in the worst place in the world, a place that bad as it treated them, didn’t want to let them leave. We had worn fake gold chains with dissident’s names on them. We remembered them at our Pesach Seders.   We had gone to rallies when Soviet diplomats came to town.  (I was seven when my parents took me to my first demonstration.   It was a cold fall night, a night when we would normally be at home watching All in the Family, but on that night we had gathered beside a hotel where an official named Kosygin was staying.  3,000,000 is half of 6,000,000 read one of the signs and I, at seven, I puzzled over what this cryptic slogan could mean.  Clearly there was something that Kosygin knew, that everyone knew, that no one had  told me about).  When they finally started to get out it was like recovering long lost family. After all weren’t my great grandparents also Russian Jews?  Weren’t they also thankful for a chance to get out of the most evil place in the world?

Except that it wasn’t.  They hardly spoke English.  They were wide eyed and awkward, and a little stunned, as if we and our Friday night routine were exotic and puzzling.  Though Jews, they seemed to know nothing of Jewish history or language or ritual.  How on earth, I wondered, were these people going to manage in Canada?

Reading Bezmozgis’s stories, I can only hope that we appeared kinder and less patronizing the Kornblums.  But the gulf between us and them was in some ways unbridgeable. We had lived lives of freedom and prosperity, and they were seeing our world through eyes that we couldn’t even imagine.

Several months after I finished reading the stories, my writing program at Bar Ilan held a literary convention. I was thrilled to find out that the guest writers were Nathan Englander (of The Twenty Seventh Man fame, see my post on this story) and David Bezmozgis.  (Never mind that I embarrassed myself by approaching Nathan Englander and asking him if he were David Bezmozgis, but that’s another story).  At a dinner held in their honor, I  couldn’t resist the opportunity to let Bezmozgis (having ascertained who he was) know that he was in the presence of a fellow Torontonian.  “How,” I asked him, “are you able to take such a dull place and use it as a backdrop for such moving stories?  When I was growing up, Toronto seemed like the most uninspiring  place on earth.”

“Yeah,” he nodded sympathetically.  “I can see how you might have felt that way.”

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