While one cannot judge a book by its cover, the themes of David Bezmozgis's first book, Natasha, and Other Stories, are nicely reflected by the Russian nesting dolls—or matryoshka—that replace the letter As in the title on the otherwise spartan cover of the book's first Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition. The use of the nesting dolls ostensibly conveys the Latvian-Russian cultural heritage at play in Bezmozgis's collection of stories. At the same time, however, the nesting dolls—those oval, hollow dolls made so that each doll in a succession can fit inside the next larger doll—serve as a primary metaphor for Bezmozgis's stories. Over and over again, Bezmozgis's characters are people who are not wholly one thing or another. Rather, they are always nesting inside a shell imposed upon them by themselves or by the various societies around them. In Soviet Latvia, the Berman family members were Jewish; in Canada, they are Russian immigrants trying to assimilate but at the same time trying not to become too assimilated. They are never completely freed of external scrutiny, never allowed to shed their shells until the final, smallest, most fragile figurine is all that remains.
As a collection of stories, Natasha, and Other Stories follows solidly in the tradition established by Sherwood Anderson with Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and carried on in books such as Go Down Moses (1942) by William Faulkner. Although the book is purportedly a collection of short stories, the tales in each of these books are united by either themes or characters or both. Through their unity and cohesion, the collection of stories form a kind of novel. Natasha, and Other Stories is particularly unified through both its use of characters and its consistent themes. It manages to present the best of both genres: the brief, concise, brilliant images that one associates with a collection of short stories, combined with the weight and impact of a novel.
The stories are all told by Mark Berman, who is six years old in the first story and an adult in the last two stories of the book. A family of Russian Jews who have immigrated to Toronto from Latvia, the Bermans immediately seek to learn the language and customs of their new home, although they are constantly reminded of the differences between themselves and their new neighbors. Initially, only Mark and his cousin Jana are successful in learning English and have to translate for their parents. Even within Toronto's Jewish community, other Jews see them as foreigners.
In the story “Roman Berman, Massage Therapist,” Mark's father, Roman, a former weightlifting coach and massage therapist in Latvia, is struggling to open his own massage parlor, having quit his job as a laborer at the chocolate factory. He is told to seek out Kornblum, a rich Jewish man who sometimes helps immigrants. The Bermans attend a dinner party at the Kornblum residence in hopes of gaining Kornblum's aid. Over the course of the evening, however, they realize that Kornblum is more interested in learning how horrible things are in the old country for Jews. Tales of anti-Semitism allow him to wax on about his own life in Canada, and the Bermans realize that Kornblum's help of immigrants serves as an excuse for him to demonstrate his own successes and triumphs.
The early stories portray the difficulty the family has in becoming Canadian. At the same time, however, the Bermans are provided with a number of reminders about how much better off they are in Toronto than they were in the Soviet Union, despite their occasional feelings to the contrary.
In “The Second Strongest Man,” Sergei Federenko, a weightlifting champion coached by Roman Berman in Latvia, is participating in an international contest in Toronto, and Roman is asked to be one of the judges. During this time, Roman is approached by the team's KGB supervisor, who wishes help finding a dentist. Although their meetings are innocent enough, they are shrouded with fear caused by the agent's power. “Don’t ever forget,” Mark's father tells him. “That is why we left. So you never have to know people like him.” Later, Sergei is invited to the Bermans’ apartment. He has just lost his first-place standing and knows that before long his privileges at home will begin eroding away. Sergei...
(The entire section is 1768 words.)