ENG358: The Immigrant Experience in Contemporary Canadian Fiction focuses on authors that write about immigrants as they deal with arriving and finding acceptance in Canada. David Bezmozgis’ “Natasha and Other Stories” is one that compiles a range of individual but connected immigrant experiences and focalizes them through the lens of Mark Berman, the son of Bella and Roman Berman, Jewish-Latvian immigrants living in Toronto. Seven stories ranging from comedic tones to devastating moments follow Mark Berman and his family as they negotiate an arrival in Toronto from Latvia. They present a wide scope of experiences of an immigrant family as well as their interactions with a community of immigrants from the same or closely related countries.
Bezmozgis does not simply present a singular story revolving around the Bermans, however. The Berman family becomes a synecdoche for the many immigrant experiences that make up a unified idea of life for an immigrant in Toronto. This is the key to the collection. The short story form is important in mirroring the multi-voiced and inherently unique stories that immigrants have to tell about their life in Canada while weaving them together to provide a group of voices rather than just one.
The immigrant experience must be understood as one of many different voices expressing their own difficulties with arrival and transition but that find strength and coherence in collection. “Natasha and Other Stories” cobbles together and successfully present the nuance of a multi-voiced but connected experience. It is a perspective which displays immigrants as they behave in view of society and how they behave without the pressure of fitting in or searching for acceptance. It also provides the perspective of immigrants as they fail to find belonging and instead find themselves a spectacle to society, as the Berman family finds themselves in Dr. Korblum’s home in the story “Roman Berman, Massage Therapist.”
The book contains small stories with coherent symbols. In “Tapka,” a dog symbolizes the last remnant of the life an elderly couple named the Nahumovskys left behind them. In “The Second Strongest Man,” Mark watches the strongest man in Latvia, Sergei, lose a lifting competition and he is sickened by it. In this moment, Mark recognizes that the world he understood while in Latvia is one that does not translate the same way in Toronto. It is possible that their migration from Latvia has weakened him and his family as it has weakened Sergei.
In “Choynski,” Bezmozgis is more experimental in his approach, but achieves the same effect of connecting voices. Flipping between the decline and death of his grandmother with his exploration of the life of a boxer named Joe Choynski, “America’s first great fighting Jew.” Mark lays out the history of two immigrants. It is a story that deals with the loss of memory, and the intense feeling of losing the past as Mark deals with the loss of his grandmother.
Bezmozgis creates a work that is both tender and truthful about the hardships immigrants face, and worth reading for its ability to remind the reader of the depth of experience that each human shares.