Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

In the Shadow of the Soviet Union

Hosted and curated by Mark Medley, book editor at the National Post, Saturday evening’s In the Shadow of the Soviet Union welcomed authors Andrew J. Borkowski and David Bezmozgis to the Knox Church.


After a short introduction to the evening by Medley, Borkowski led things off by reading a passage from his new book, Copernicus Avenue. Roughly based on his own family history, the collection of short stories chronicles the life events and assimilation into Canadian culture of an immigrant family from Poland. The particular story Borkowski chose to read, entitled “12 Versions of Lech,” is the story of an artist – Lech - told from the perspective of a young boy. Borkowski assumed a thick Polish accent at appropriate moments, his booming voice effectively channelling the voices of his characters. The author has a knack for anecdote, and his writing shines with tales of folly and the transplanted Polish culture of Toronto’s fictional, yet grounded in reality, Copernicus Avenue. One such tale describes Lech’s penchant for trickery, on display during an interaction with a couple visiting from America. Posturing as a Laplander, Lech claims to pay his income tax in bones, a story which is eagerly accepted by his woefully inept audience, the American couple.


Bezmozgis followed with a passage from his latest novel, The Free World. The book follows a family of Jewish Latvians who have escaped from the bleakness and despair of their homeland and spend a year in Italy en route to resettling in North America. As Bezmozgis would describe later on in the evening during the discussion period, this European transition zone was a unique cultural phenomenon – families were warmly, albeit temporarily, welcomed into the community as a sort of waystation on their longer journey. The novel is told from three different voices and spans many years; the passage Bezmozgis read is the narrative of a young man, who, upon having gained a reasonable command of the new language, is interviewing as a candidate for an entry-level position in an office. The story largely stays within the character’s own head, and Bezmozgis has brilliantly and deftly kept a running commentary of the situation’s intricacies – the barriers created by language, cultural differences, the sexual interplay between young people – with wry wit and a practiced hand. At one point, the awkward encounter is described thusly, “The sexual proposal was slapped down on the table like a fish.” Titillating indeed.


The wry humour of both authors was brought up once more during the discussion that followed, when Medley and the two authors convened on stage to further discuss the motivations and methods behind their writing. On humour, Bezmogis said, (roughly paraphrased) “When you’re in a bad situation and there’s no way out of it, there’s nothing you can do, you have to laugh.” There is a history of a very dry variety of humour from that part of the world that seems to endure today, perhaps borne of those hardships endured while under the shadow of the Soviet Union.


On stage, the authors shared a comfortable rapport, asking one another questions throughout in response to Medley’s prompts and finding much common ground in regard to their families’ respective pasts and relocation to Canada post WWII. Both Borkowski and Bezmozgis described in detail the histories that set the foundations for their work, with the various waves of immigration into Canada and the events that allowed for and compelled such large groups of people to travel so far around the world. Their writing is well informed by their own personal travels – Borkowski visited Poland with his family as a young man; Bezmozgis has traveled to both Latvia and Italy - as well as the influence of their respective cultures and families.


In traveling back through these historical events, particularly the hardships endured under Soviet rule, the authors became somewhat more introspective. The commodities available in Latvia for example, as described by Bezmogis, were essentially nil (vodka being a lone exception), which prompted whole families to uproot and travel halfway around the world for the sake of finding new opportunities. The extent of the difficulties foisted upon these people was made clear by both authors’ honest marvel for and appreciation of the freedoms those of us living in Canada and the United States have to express ourselves today. Although both Bezmozgis and Borkowski grew up in the West, they still, to a certain extent, live in the shadow of their ancestors’ experience, and reveled in the moment, genuinely appreciating the opportunity to sit, talk, learn and listen. As did we, the audience.