September 16, 2010

The Eastern European migrant as a fiction hero

This is a sociologist’s eye critique of two successful award-winning British novels, and a couple of films, on Eastern European migrant workers:

- Rosemary Tremain, The Road Home (2007)

- Marina Lewycka, Two Caravans (2007) (US title: Strawberry Fields)

These two novels’ merits are twofold: humanising the Eastern European workers who have “flooded” the British labour market since 2004, and to give us, in the reflection of their eyes, a different perspective on British society. Yet as a sociologist, even respecting the licence fiction writers have, it is impossible not to notice the number of mistakes and distortions. When noticing them, I initially thought I was being pedantic, but then started to wonder where this specific form of migrant idealisation comes from.

Tremain’s book has met the best critics’ reception, and it is the most inaccurate. The author, it has to be said, has cleverly avoided the problem of historical accuracy by explicitly de-contextualising the hero, Lev, by not saying from which country he comes from. He is just from an imaginary Eastern European country, which seems to combine the worst bits of Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria in one, quite depressing, place. It may be unfair to criticise a fantasy for inaccuracy, but the problem is that from this dystopia follows an idealisation of the migrant’s path.

The best side of the book is the representation of Lev’s lonely, because not understood by any British person around, nostalgia for his village and in particular his daughter. Only his drunk Irish lodger, who is being himself alienated from society and from his own daughter, shows some understanding. The book has indeed poetic appeal and portrays some of the ‘hidden suffering’ of migrant workers well analysed by French-Algerian sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad. Nostalgia is a rich theme, but its portrayal in the book is not convincing - it is much better accounted in a different recent novel, Netherland by Joseph O’Neill (2008), who manages to combine historical accuracy (post-9/11 New York) with existential depth. By contrast, Lev’s situation in Tremain’s book is so absurd that it evoked anger rather than sympathy. For instance, Lev is able only very rarely to communicate with his daughter and mother, because they don’t have a landline at home, and because Lev can’t afford calling their neighbour friend from his British mobile phone. Now, it is plausible (if unlikely) that a family may still not have a landline in Eastern Europe in 2005. But which migrant worker in London calls home directly from his mobile phone? Tremain probably has never put foot in Eastern Europe, but has she at least been out in London? How could she not notice the number of phone shops or cheap call cards with which you can call Easter Europe from about 1p a minute? This is not a pedantic detail: broken communication lines are a fundamental theme in the book, and their absurdity makes the rest fall apart.

Yet from a sociologist’s of work perspective, it is Lev’s career that is laughable [attention: spoiler follows]. A 42-year old male with only previous work in state-owned wood industry, followed by long employment, starts cleaning dishes in a top restaurant in London, and by simply occasionally turning his head from the sink to look at what the chef does, within a few months he has learnt all his techniques and when an unexpected opportunity arises, he establishes himself as a successful chef, and then, in another few months, accumulates enough money to go back home and open his own restaurant. Now, other people may be faster than me at learning new cooking techniques. But this trajectory is so ridiculous that it can only be accepted as a subtle irony of London celebrity chefs: as Lenin famously said that under communism the government can be run by a kitchen aid, is Tremain arguing that in capitalist London a celebrity restaurant can be run by a dishwasher? Not so sure. This is the American Dream inflated and revisited in a soppy English sauce, and the opening quote to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, rather than putting this book in the same tradition, just manifests what Tremain has failed to do: observing economic migrant lives.

One of the few credible pages in The Road Home are the interlude in which Lev works as an asparagus picker in a farm: indeed, from the book’s acknowledgments, migrants’ farm work seems to be the only reality the author has observed and researched. But if you are into migrant labour in agriculture than look at the second novel, Two Caravans. This is a comic novel, following the success of Lewycka’s debut ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’. Humour writers enjoy even more licence, but Lewycka actually knows her topic much better than Tremain does. Herself the daughter of Ukrainian refugees, she has a particular sensitivity for Ukrainians, but also for all other foreigners. And indeed all characters in this Babel Tower of a novel are well described and extremely well placed in their backgrounds: the Poles, the Kosovar, the Moldovian, the Malawi, the Chinese and even the Malaysian Chinese.

Stylistically, the most remarkable, and ambitious, feature of the novel is that it is written in multiple voices: each scene told by a different character, in a different style. Lewycka attempts at portraying the way the speak, and each makes characteristic mistakes in English – often very funny, nearly like those I make in my lectures, only to keep students awake of course. And she goes even further, in trying to give a specific sound to the heroes when they speak to each other in their own native language (e.g. Polish): in that case, of course, the vocabulary becomes suddenly rich, but the style is still peculiar, for instance with the missing articles that characterise Slavic languages. I think this is as far as you can get in portraying multilinguism in a text written in one language. Not all is successful, though. First, the style is not always consistent. Second, I felt the author went one step too far when adding, among the first-person narrators, the dog, who writes not only in bad English, but also in Comic fonts. Finally, and most importantly, she got the language of the main hero wrong. The ambiguous tension between Andriy, miner from Donbas in Eastern Ukraine, and Irina, student from Kiev in the West, is a main theme in the book and has interesting political tones, Irina being a supporter of the Orange Revolution and Andriy an opponent. But while the narration reminds frequently that they dislike each other’s accent, it is most strange that they speak the same language at all, for in Donbas the large majority are Russophone. Sorry if I sound pedantic, but language is actually a crucial political, cultural and social divide in the Ukraine – maybe my Canadian and Belgian friends know what I mean. Currently, the Ukraine has both president and prime minister Russophone, and the prime minister, Mykola Azarov, even struggles in Ukrainian (I don’t know of any other prime minister who is not fluent in the official language of his country). The current government proposal to de facto equalise the use of Russian and Ukrainian is threatening to break the country apart. Yet, in the novel, Andriy speaks Ukrainian happily.

I would still strongly recommend Two Tractors as both funny and instructive. There are limits, naturally as I think that it is impossible to write an entirely funny comic novel: you physically can’t keep laughing for 300 pages. It may be criticised that Lewycka used humour on terrible topics such as human trafficking: but the book has a very strong moral dimension. Some scenes are more shocking and convincing than press reports, for instance when some characters end up working in graphically described horrific chicken processing factory. I liked how the Pole Tomasz, who speaks little English but plays the guitar and loves the Beatles and Bob Dylan, eventually leads a worker revolts, jumps up and shouts ‘How many years must these persons exist before they learns to be free?’. And after they all lose their chicken-processing jobs, the Pole Yola says to her niece Marta and their Ukrainian and Malawi colleagues: ‘Now we are in Europe marketing we can earn good money here. I will be teacher. Tomek will be government bureaucrat. Marta... what will you be?’. ‘I will be a vegetarian’. ‘One day Ukraina will be also in Europe marketing. And Africa too.’

Put together, these two novels also tell us something about Britain. This is a new form of Orientalism, a fascination with the ‘other’, but also its undermining as ‘naive’. Tremain’s Lev and Lewycka’s Andriy are quite similar in their difference from the dominant models of modern Britain: honest, hard-working, uninterested in celebrities, and – typical stereotype on ethnic minorities – very heterosexual. Their Eastern European additional specificity is a leaning towards melancholy. At the same time, they bring a very sad look at the state of the West, and a little hope for the future.

Eastern Europeans are slowly making success as heroes in literature and cinema throughout Europe: it is an interesting development as it may affect the popular perception of a macroscopic demographic change that is taking place. In Italy, for instance, Gianfranco Bettin (better famous as Venetian environmentalist politician) wrote ‘Nebulosa del Boomerang’ (2004), where the heroin is a Polish prostitute. Now, the poor prostitute saved from a nasty pimp by a good man was a trite plot already at the time of Titus Maccius Plautus, but Bettin’s novel is very original, not least for the female taxi driver character. The same cannot be said about some movies on the same topic, e.g. the soppy ‘Vesna va veloce’ (1996) by Carlo Mazzaccurati, on a Czech prostitute. More ad hoc in terms of topic, but equally soppy, is 'Mar Nero' by Bondi (2009), on a Romanian domestic worker. Even in the otherwise excellent Austrian ‘Revanche’ (2008) by Spielmann whe weakest character is the Ukrainian prostitute-heroin. In the case of films, I would say that it is better if they stay away from that topic. Most smartly, this is done in another Austrian movie, ‘Import – Export’ by Seidl (2007), which follows the parallel paths of Paul, an Austrian young unemployed with a criminal stepfather going East, and Olga, an Ukrainian nurse going West and ending up in a geriatric hospital. The scenes of the geriatric hospital and those of the Roma ghettoes in Slovakia are extremely realistic (Seidl’s background’s is in documentary movies), and Olga’s trajectory challenges all stereotypes: she moves West to escape, not to embrace sex work. In the UK, Ken Loach too avoids prostitution in ‘It’s a Free World’ (2007), but like in all other Loach’s movies, the perspicacity on British characters and British society is not matched by a comparable understanding of non-British characters. The same had happened for the Spanish, Nicaraguan, Mexican or Irish heroes of his previous works: the Poles are idealised, and if the intention may be good, the effect is not convincing, at least for someone like me already devoting a lot of time to ‘real’ Polish migrant workers. Interestingly, the Polish own representation of their emigrants is more critical, as in the popular TV series ‘Londonczycy’ ('the Londoners'). And already well before EU integration, Polish director Skolimowski (who has just won the Venice jury special prize for the intriguing ‘Essential Killing’, on a Al-Qaida prisoner fleeing a secret CIA prison) had produced the outstanding ‘Moonlighting’ (1982), on Polish builders working illegally in London at the times of Solidarnosc. But then, Skolimowski is an emigrant himself. He knows better.

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