Language and Immigration in Bezmozgis' Tapka

by: Philip Swieton
July 25, 2022

“Tapka” is a short story by Latvian-Canadian author and filmmaker David Bezmozgis. It was first published in The New Yorker in 2003 and was later arranged as the opening story in Bezmozgis’ short-story collection Natasha and Other Stories. The collection follows the Bermans, a Russian-Jewish family who fled Riga, Latvia (then part of the Soviet Union) for Toronto. 

Mark, the collection's narrator, is six years old in "Tapka". His family lives in an apartment building that has no other Russians except for one older couple, with whom they learn English, their new language. While the adults collaborate on their English lessons, Mark and his cousin are trusted with walking the neighbours' prized dog, a white Lhasa-apso named Tapka. The children would take Tapka by the ravine, throwing Tapka's pet clown Clonchik in every direction and ordering, "Tapka get Clonchik". As Mark proudly remarks: "Tapka always got Clonchik." Here, Mark discovers the relationship between the language he uses and its ability to produce the effects he wants.

This to Mark is a period of uninhibited linguistic discovery, where anything he says is met with no recrimination or consequence.

Unlike his parents, who rigorously study to apprehend their new language, Mark has a more permissive experience with language acquisition; he describes his absorption of the English around him as the trickle of "a thin rivulet of meaning" into his "cerebral catch basin". While also picking up innocuous phrases from T.V. such as "What's up, Doc?" and "Super-duper!", Mark (as children tend to be) is most keen on retaining playground talk - words that are not worth repeating! This crude freedom begins to colour Mark and his cousin's interactions with Tapka. They excitedly refer to the dog by their newly learned profanities, remarking with glee how she would dutifully retrieve Clonchik all the same. This to Mark is a period of uninhibited linguistic discovery, where anything he says is met with no recrimination or consequence. Tapka will always get Clonchik.

Not always. As the children grow increasingly haphazard and aggressive with their language, so too becomes their attitude towards the dog. Off her leash, Tapka chases a Clonchik that was carelessly thrown too close to the street. In a split-second confusion, she instead chases a sparrow into the road and is hit by oncoming traffic.

The freedom that Mark felt with his new language that afternoon is juxtaposed with that evening's distress: Tapka bloodied in the veterinary office, her owners with no linguistic means to communicate their circumstances than to silently sway on the floor. Mark watches his mother, the most scholastic of the adults in their English lessons, struggle to make the situation barely understandable to the doctor.

The scene forms something of a linguistic coming-of-age moment for Mark. While learning English may come easier to him than to his parents and his neighbours, he cannot entirely separate himself from their situation as immigrants in Canada. There are difficulties, beyond his understanding, that his family will have to face in a country whose language they do not speak - difficulties that put limitations on the freedom he thought he had unlocked through cursing. This epiphany resounds in the story's final words: "There is reality and then there is truth. The reality is that Tapka will live . . .  But let's be honest, the truth is you killed Tapka". The reality is that the operation will be performed on Tapka one way or another. The truth is that Mark has discovered the boundaries and consequences of his new language.