Natasha and Other Stories

by David Bezmozgis
ISBN: 0002005689

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A Review of: Natasha
by Michael Greenstein

Like Anne Michaels and Lilian Nattel, David Bezmozgis has been thrust onto the Canadian stage through American recognition. A Russian-Jewish immigrant in Toronto, Bezmozgis has been compared to Mordecai Richler and Philip Roth for his muscular, cinematic portrayal of Jewish life. In Natasha, his debut collection of seven short stories, he chronicles the coming of age of Mark Berman in a tightly-knit Russian community in Toronto's northern suburbs. His transatlantic education also includes Anton Chekhov and Isaac Babel; as one of the characters in the final short story, "Minyan", comments: "A real Odessa character, right out of the pages of Babel." Odessa and Lake Ontario meet and clash on the pages of Natasha.
The opening story, "Tapka", originally published in The New Yorker, is the strongest in this collection. It opens on a Malamudian note-an angular mix of tenement talking, naturalism, and personification: "Goldfinch was flapping clotheslines, a tenement delirious with striving." The avian-named apartment building prepares for the fateful sparrow later in the story, while "striving" signals Toronto's vertical mosaic with its up-from-the-ghetto mentality. Moreover, the balance on the clotheslines points to syntactic balance within the sentence, as well as the tenuous balance in the lives of the inhabitants of 6030 Bathurst Street. "Flapping" leads to the significant "swaying" of the characters at the end of "Tapka".
Tapka is the dog's name in this quasi-fable, a precious Lhasa-apso that has travelled with the narrator's childless neighbours from Minsk to Vienna, Rome, and Toronto. The narrator, Mark Berman, and his cousin Jana take Tapka for daily walks through the neighbourhood ravine. These stories are about the immigrants' desire to feel at home in the midst of dislocation, and the domesticated animal forms part of the connection within family and community. Tapka's leash becomes an important symbol in the connection between wandering Jewish dog and its caretakers. "We had intuited an elemental truth: love needs no leash." Mark identifies with Tapka and he too has a leash in the form of a brown shoelace with a house key hanging from his neck. The fragility of the dog's situation appears from the outset: "I had to restrain myself from squeezing too hard and crushing her little bones." Connections form between squeezing and flapping.
As the cousins learn about Tapka, they also enter into the intricacies of a new language at school. "That first spring, even though what was said around me remained a mystery, a thin rivulet of meaning trickled into my cerebral catch basin and collected into a little pool of knowledge." What is caught in that basin are a number of schoolyard vulgarities, including "shithead", "mental case", and "gaylord"-terms that the cousins freely exchange in the ravine. In turn, they begin applying these labels playfully to the dog and its rag clown "Clonchik". The interchangeability of these frivolous words hints at the unstable identities of the immigrants. Tossing language, like tossing Clonchik, has its consequences, though Mark "was amazed at the absence of consequences." These shifting identities and loosening of the leash cause Tapka's accident: "One moment a Clonchik is a Clonchik and the next moment a sparrow is a Clonchik."
At the vet's after the accident, the young cousins cannot communicate with the doctor. When the dog's owners finally arrive, they sink to the floor where the vet joins them in communion, if not communication. "The three of them sat in a line, swaying like campers at a campfire. I watched Rita, Misha, and the doctor swaying and swaying. I became mesmerized by the swaying. I wanted to know what would happen to Tapka; the swaying answered me." Flapping, striving, and swaying come to life in the prose of Natasha.
Tapka's doctor wears furry slippers resembling paws; Tapka's Russian name combines the meaning of slippers and paws to highlight the distinctions between the domesticated and the dislocated, as does the hypnotic swaying. "The swaying said: Listen, shithead, Tapka will live. I said to the swaying: This is very good. The swaying replied: There is reality and then there is truth." This distinction between truth and reality mirrors the earlier distinction between evidence and proof surrounding Tapka's connection to her leash. These Odessan oscillations from flipping clotheslines to swaying characters mark the ambiguities within Bezmozgis's fiction.
In the title story, "Natasha", Mark is several years older and initiated into the sexual mysteries of a teenager. Heraclitus's sentence, "It is the opposite which is good to us," serves as epigraph to this story, and may be applied equally to other stories in this slim volume where oppositional forces may be good or bad in a transatlantic universe fraught with ambiguities. At sixteen Mark is high on drugs most of the time and spends much of the time in basements as an underground boy-man. Subterranean life in the suburbs extends to his friend, Rufus, a drug-dealing philosopher who excavates his backyard to make way for an elaborate swimming pool. After all the twists and turns in "Natasha", the story's final paragraph offers both epiphany and ambiguity. Transatlanticizing Henry Roth and Isaac Babel, Mark returns home to a dubious habitation: "In another country, under another code, it would have been my duty to return to Rufus's with a gun. But in the suburbs, at the end of my sixteenth summer, this was not an option. By the time I got home I had already crafted a new identity." Under a different Russo-Canadian code, Bezmozgis's stories carve out a new identity, a shifty and shifting identity bearing the street smarts of Minsk and Toronto. Mark's new perspective has a fictional familiarity about it. "I crouched and peered through the window into my basement. I had never seen it from this perspective. I saw what Natasha must have seen every time she came to the house. In the full light of summer, I looked into darkness. It was the end of my subterranean life." With his inverted bird's-eye perspective, the narrator pans the movie set at Rufus's as well as his own hole in the ground. A reader of Kafka's diaries, Mark burrows and metamorphoses.
"Roman Berman, Massage Therapist" depicts the family's difficulties in making it in a new country. "We could trade on our history." Just as the Bermans trade on theirs, so Bezmozgis establishes the Diaspora's free trade zone between the coffee table of acculturated Polish Jews (Dr. Kornblum's family) and the samovar of the later Russians (the Bermans). Although the Kornblums invite the newer immigrants to dinner with the best intentions of aiding them, "it was unclear whether nothing or everything had changed." Bezmozgis's short stories trade on these ambiguities: "our fate. floated above us like an ether, ambiguous and perceptible."
Babel's and Bezmozgis's tough Jews recur in "The Second Strongest Man" and in "An Animal to the Memory" where Mark is "the toughest kid in Hebrew school," fighting between muscles and the ether of Holocaust memory. "Choynski" floats between an account of Mark's grandmother dying in Toronto and his simultaneous visit to a boxing maven in California. The final story, "Minyan", also explores old age and the dying off of a way of life-the need to find a tenth man for a quorum for prayer. Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant appear regularly in The New Yorker. Now that Bezmozgis has made his debut there, it will be interesting to see if he'll continue to remain in their company on a regular basis. Natasha is a fine first collection from a talented writer.

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