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December 02, 2011
Mont Blanc, by Fabio Viscogliosi
Follow-up to Geneva, Mt Blanc and European borders from Around Europe 2010-12
Review of: Fabio Viscogliosi, Mont Blanc, Paris: Stock, 2011
Last September, coming back from the Mont Blanc, I commented on the tunnel tragedy of 1999. In the same month Fabio Viscogliosi, French artist, musician and writer son of Italian immigrants, published a book on exactly that: it was the first book I bought once I arrived to Paris and I read it within a few days.
It is not an informative book, but a very personal one. Viscogliosi’s parents were driving to Italy on that 24th March 1999, and they died with other 37 people (or more? as with 9/11, the number does not include possible unclaimed dead, such as undocumented migrants, and the bodies disintegrated) in the middle of the tunnel, under 3,000 meters of rock, exactly at the border between their country of origin and their country of adoption. As the fire started, they managed to leave their car and walk some 500 meters towards the exit - but the smoke prevailed when they had another 8km to go.
The book is in the form of sparse intimate notes, like a diary. Only the first twenty pages describe the fire, with very human details on the victims. The book is more about a personal itinerary to come to terms with the unbelievable news of his parents burnt in the Mont Blanc, which he got that night from an estranged aunt, and to grieve the unexpected and strange loss. It also reports the trial (which ended with condemns for manslaughter), but with little detail, because the author could not concentrate during it, as well as the erratic reporting by the media (at that time, more interested in the NATO bombing of Serbia). Most entries are about the connections he keeps making whenever he hears about tunnels or about the Mont Blanc. It is a very different contribution to the literature on the Mont Blanc. And a touching reminder than when crossing the Alps, we should take our time.
November 01, 2011
A great book and a good movie on the Spanish failed golpe of 30 years ago
Javier Cercas, Anatomía de un instante (Random House Mondadori 2009)
El 23-F, film directed by Chema de la Peña (2011)
World’s literature is full of historical novels as well as of literary historical accounts – Herodotus, Caesar, Dumas, Tolstoy, Orwell, Lussu, etc etc. Yet Anatomía de un instante (English translation The Anatomy of a Moment, Blumsbury 2011), rewarded with the premio Nacional de Narrativa of 2010 is unique. It represents a genre of its own, a novel/essay/reportage hybrid that seems to have been invented to match my taste with perfection: literary skill, historical rigour, journalist inquisitiveness, political sensitivity and human depth. All in 450 pages which were a fantastic companion during my summer holiday, and to which I get back now having watched its cinema counterpart, El 23-F (17 Hours).
Anatomia de un instante is about the failed golpe of the 23rd February 1981. It is a very detailed historical account, but instead of starting from a historical problem (such as the origins of the golpe, the emergence of Spanish democracy...), it starts from a literary question on a specific instant, known to all Spanish people from the TV footage of the military storming of the Parliament: why did prime minister Adolfo Suárez stay seated at his place, while the soldiers shouted ‘to the floor’ and their bullets whistled around him? Was it a heroic act, mere political posturing, a form of atonement? Historians may be good at answering the big questions, but only an accomplished novelist can answer such intimate ones.
The book is built around six characters. The event of the golpe is described each time again, from the eyes, and the mind, of a different protagonist. The six characters are on one side the three members of parliament who did not obey the golpist orders: Suárez, the deputy Prime Minister General Gutiérrez Mellado, who had himself taken part in Franco’s golpe forty-five years earlier, and communist leader Santiago Carrillo. And on the other side the three protagonists on the golpe: the lieutenant colonel Tejero, whom Cercas, importantly, refuses to treat as an isolated nutter as popular accounts do, and the generals Milans del Bosch and Armada. Of the six characters, though, the one Cercas is most interested in is Suárez, and with good reason: it is an ideal type of the ‘pure politician’ and therefore a universal character for a novelist, but also the core protagonist of Spanish democratisation, and therefore a prime object for historical inquiry. And if you read the book until the end, you will discover a much more personal, intimate reason why Cercas, who in his youth politically despised Suárez, came to be so fascinated by his figure... and why understanding Suárez is so important in order to understand today’s Spain.
The attention to characters comes at the cost of neglect for the context: both the international one (the roles of the USA and the Vatican, for instance) and the social ones (we are repeatedly told of social unrest, but what was it about?). This would be a problem academically, but it isn’t literarily. The description is in incredible detail and with such skill, that even if you obviously know the end, you get stuck in the suspense of the events, six times over (in fact, some recent research shows that books are more gripping when you know the ending: spoilers do not exist). Moreover, the style is beautiful, in particular through the multi-level discussion, in single long sentences, of multiple counterfactuals when investigating different possible interpretations of the event. It makes you love the most difficult bit of Spanish grammar, the intensive use of the subjunctive, much more precise than in Italian and especially French, and more faithful to Latin. I wonder how the English translator could cope with such multiple 'if', 'if only', ‘as if’, 'even if’ with different subjective degrees of probability...
The movie El 23-F tells the same story, but rather than in 450 pages of novel/essay, in 90 minutes of political thriller. The context which is just in the background in Cercas’ novel, here totally disappears, except short opening sequences of historical footage on the Spanish transition. The set is great: real tanks on the streets, and action in the real building of the Congreso de los Diputados (where the bullets holes are still visible). The movie is just on the 17 hours of the golpe, from Tejero’s storming in the Congress at 6pm to his surrender at 1pm the day after. And the focus is just on three characters: Tejero, Armada, and the king. The first two are fantastic Shakesperean characters, combinations of Richard III and Macbeth, evil conspirators but also tragically tormented by internal conflicts and occasionally ridiculous. By contrast, the king is here presented in a hagiographic way: he just does the right thing defending democracy, and he appears at the same time a hero and as a nice bloke. Shame that, as Cercas convincingly shows in his book, the behaviour of the king was actually unsteady, with major faults and if eventually crucially redeeming, only because of his secretary Fernandéz Campo’s interposition. At the Warsaw Film Festival, director de la Peña said that he showed the events ‘simply as they happened in reality’. I could not resist asking him why then we can’t see General Cortina (the head of the intelligence, whose ambiguous role is discussed from all angles by Cercas, and is still disputed in Spain). He answered ‘buena pregunta’, before making the point that the role of Cortina, if there was any, was before the golpe, and therefore outside the time frame of the movie. A good answer cinematographically, but a bad one historically. I don't trust who pretends to tell history ‘just as it happened in reality’.
The thirtieth anniversary of Tejero’s exploit has shown how literarily and cinematographically inspiring the drama of a failed coup can be. 2011 is also the thirtieth anniversary of the ‘self-golpe’ by Jaruzelski in Poland and the twentieth anniversary of the failed coup in the Soviet Union, while next year will be the tenth anniversary of the failed golpe against Chavez in Venezuela. I am looking forward to Polish, Russian and Venezuelan writers and directors taking up this tremendous genre.
July 18, 2011
A 'classic' and 'classist' novel on an odd corner of Tuscany
It hurts me when I hear Piombino defined as the ugliest corner of Tuscany – even if being the ugliest corner of Tuscany might well be compatible with being quite a beautiful place for other countries’ or regions’ standards. But indeed it is the contrast with the immediate surroundings that harms Piombino. Right in front, just 10 minutes of ferry away, is the splendid Elba Island, with its beaches, its picturesque villages, its mountain and Napoleonic residence. At the back, the calendar Tuscan hills, with the Sasiccaia wine, the woods and the wild boars. To the North, just behind the hill, the idyllic Baratti beach with its Etruscan ruins. When you arrive by train from the North, you see in rapid succession the beaches, the pine forest, the hills... and then suddenly, unexpected, completely ill-suited, Piombino. With its gigantic steelworks, its four blast furnaces (only one still active), its noise and pollution, its blocks of flats for workers. The Welsh know the same contrast between the Gower peninsula and its spectacular beaches and Port Talbot – but Piombino and Baratti are just one behind the other, separated by only a green promontory of 4km, instead of a 15km gulf.
It makes me particularly angry when I hear tourists, who cross the city as fast as possible to get to the port and escape to the Elba, make the most stupid of comments on the factories: ‘but why did they build that here?’. It’s like the American tourists asking why the queen built Windsor castle so close to the airport. Because metal production in Piombino is two thousand year older than tourism, thanks to the local iron mine. The steelworks themselves are one hundred year old. Indeed, they were destroyed, together with the whole town, by the withdrawing German army at the end of the war. But the local population, immediately, spontaneously, rebuilt them, and took control of them. Piombino became then one of the main sites of Italian state industry, until it was privatised to Lucchini in 1992, not before a tough two-month strike that marked the town.
I spent a few pleasant weeks in Piombino in 1998, mostly in the Fiom (metalworker union) offices, for my doctoral research comparing the Lucchini steelworks in Piombino with those in Warsaw – the local union officer started to call me ‘the Pole’, something exotic for the local community. Few years later, Lucchini was taken over by the Russian Severstal.
It is with mixed feelings, then, that I have read this successful Italian novel dedicated to this most unsung of Tuscan towns and its 35,000 inhabitants. There is some tradition of Italian novels on the working class, but this stands out. It is about the provincial, peripheral working class, not the classic one of Turin, Milan or Naples. And it is written from a different gender and generation perspective. Silvia Avallone is only 26.
The novel tells the story of the families of two steelworkers, neighbours in the ugly council blocks of Via Stalingrado, in front of the local, dirty and crowded beach. However, the heroes are not the steelworkers, but their fourteen-year old daughters, who spend the summer on the beach, despite their fathers controlling behaviour and monitoring from the balcony. Anna and Francesca are classmates; one is doing well at school, the other is not, but they are best mates and share, among others, a strong resentment against their fathers. Anna’s is dismissed by Lucchini for stealing, while her mother is politically militant and her older brother, equally steelworker, is the most popular bloke among local girls. Francesca’s one is semi-illiterate and violent, her mother is a completely submissive Southern immigrant. In the summer of 2001, they dream to get a scooter and escape, swearing loyalty to each other.
But there comes September 2001. Not so much 9/11, which the local youth watches on a bar TV wondering if it is a movie and getting bored very soon when they realise it is just the news on a far away place. But the fact that Anna and Francesca will go to different secondary schools, given their different academic results, and will grow apart because of diverging interests, loves and sexual orientations. Although their parallel personal wars with their respective fathers continue...
If on one level this seems just another teenager story, with the usual ingredients of generational conflict, sexual discovery, drugs experimentation and irresponsible behaviour, there is more to this book. It is a sharp portrayal of a disappearing world, the compact steel working class of Piombino, once united by a 70% union membership and 70% vote for the communists, immortalised by Gramsci monuments. Anna’s brother Alessio at the 2001 elections voted for Berlusconi, because 'at least he is not a loser like the Fiom unionists', and finds individual ways to find the necessary money for Saturday night and for a new car. The moral conservatism of their parents is contrasted with the sexual liberation of teen-agers – which however, in this isolated setting, takes the form of miming TV showgirls and the appeal of the strippers clubs in the hinterland. Avallone manages to provide an intimate portrait of both generations, with respect but without any sentimentalism and glorification of either the young or the old. In particular, there is no discount for the traditional machismo and for domestic violence. I imagine the Fiom comrades to be a bit angry about the book, but in fact I remember that when twenty years ago the experiment was made to appoint a few dozen women as manual workers in the steelworks, they all quickly resigned, not so much because of the working conditions, but because of the intolerable sexist culture.
In fact both old and new suffer from social isolation. The council houses, the pollution, the separation from the nearby touristic spots are physical, symbolic and cultural. One wonders why the youth spend the time on the dirty Piombino’s beach with the view of chimneys, instead of moving just 4km North to Baratti beach (one of the most beautiful in Italy), or take the ferry to the Elba – where most of them have never been. But then one of the boys suggests to go to Baratti – to nick valuables from posh tourists. Even more, one wonders why the internet is never mentioned – in 2001-02!. But while mobile phones’ use has become widespread in Italy sooner than elsewhere, internet access has long remained limited to certain social groups. Overall, Piombino’s working class experiences are made of social rejection on one side, and of political or media paternalism – as symbolised by the impossible relationship between Alessio and Elena, the middle-class girl becoming factory’s human resource manager. A rejection that in Italy may be less violent then the one lived by the English working class described by Own Jones in ‘Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class’ or by Shaw's Tile Hill paintings– but that it is true nonetheless.
There is a good deal of exaggeration in all this, and, in a way, of additional, unnecessary demonisation. Avallone is not from Piombino and has never lived there. Via Stalingrado in Piombino does not exist (although there are still a few Vie Stalingrado in Italy), nor a beach like that. While there is deprivation in Piombino, I can say from experience that it still is much better than, say, Port Talbot; that it is clean and not that smelly; that Fiom members are not that losers; and that steelworkers' pay is not that bad nor employment prospects so restricted to steel. In the novel there is basically no positive figure, except maybe Anna’s mother, but most people I met in Piombino were actually positive. No mention in the book of the 'heroic defeat' of the 1992 2-month strike. Accidents in the huge plant do occur a lot (I remember the day a worker died in the steelworks during my research and the immediate strike and demonstration that were called), but the one told in Acciaio sounds implausible.
These may be forgivable licences in a novel. The descriptions, whether of the plant, of the desolated country roads around it, of the council houses and the humble city centre are spot on. The dialogue is very fresh, without indulging in artificial slang as many young Italian authors do, although the author also avoids any Tuscan speak, whether for her ignorance or for a clear choice of depicting the Italian province rather than simply an Italian province. The social crisis in the background of two girls’ crisis is vividly accounted within an orderly, 'classic' novel: industrial restructuring is painful, just like growing up for two girls in a very sexist environment. In a way, Italy has found, with this book on generations, class identity and gender identity, its sourer sort of Billy Elliott – and a female one to it. In 2010 it achieved the second place in the main Italian contest, the Premio Strega, and it is already translated into German and French – a healthy balance to all the various disgustingly soppy ‘Houses in the Tuscan sun’.
March 08, 2011
“Under German beds”: the surprising adventures of a Polish cleaner in Offenbach
Review of: Justyna Polanska, “Unter deutschen Betten. Eine polnische Putzfrau packt aus”, Knaur 2011.
The autobiography of a Polish cleaner in Germany, under the title “Under German beds: A Polish cleaning lady unpacks”, has been an instant success and is currently in third place in the list of German bestsellers.
The book by Justyna Polanska, 32 year-old who emigrated at the age of 19 from Poznań to Offenbach near Frankfurt, has all is needed for an immediately-likeable bestseller. First, an accessible contemporary style of short sections and short sentences (I read the 210pp over a couple of evenings, and I am usually slow with German literature), possibly the product of heavy editing (I couldn't detect any underlying Polonism). Second, stories that relate to the lives of millions people. Third, a mix of cheap psychology and practical information – the two most sold items of self-help literature (Polanska also offers cleaning advice on the internet: www.putzen-mit-justyna.de). And, decisively, a soft tabu topic.
The two main reasons why Germans are reading this book with such Drang are probably two. First the ‘dirty’ stories on the sexual harassment Polanska has had to endure in her 12 years of cleaning in Germany. These are all very depressing and in my view not the best part of the book, but undoubtedly they are a selling point, flagged up already in the title (“under German kitchen sinks” wouldn’t sell that much). Secondly, and intriguingly, the perspective of a cleaner is a formidable “mirror” on the real lives of Germans – private lives but also, metaphorically, public life. I can imagine Germans buying the book to discover “how we (and our neighbours) really look like”. As Polanska puts it: “this is the privilege of the cleaning lady: we look behind the curtains.”
These curtains are particularly thick in Germany, and this is why the topic is “tabu”. Not just because Polanska tells us that Germans (unsurprisingly) are not as clean and orderly as they claim. Domestic cleaning is particularly widespread, and increasing, in Germany, and it is also particularly informal. Western Germans have traditionally paid more attention to looking after their homes than many Central and Northern European neighbours: men, under industrial vocational training influence, are into DIY, and women were largely house-bound (the tax system discourages the dual-earner family, childcare provisions were minimal, schools end at midday). Only recently female full-time employment has boomed – hence the demand for domestic cleaners. Other countries have had it for longer (Southern Europe) or have already developed partial alternatives (public services in Scandinavia, ready meals and just not caring in the UK).
But also, other European countries have tried to ‘regularise’ domestic cleaning, usually through major social security incentives (Italy) or ‘vouchers’ for families so that they employ regular workers (Austria, Scandinavia). As a result, paradoxically, the domestic cleaning profession is much more ‘regular’ in a notoriously informal economy such as the Italian one, than in the supposedly ‘coordinated’ one of Germany. In her comparison between Germany and Italy, Finitelli (‘Migration Policy between Restrictive Purposes and Structural Demand: The Case of the Domestic Worker Sector in Germany and Italy.’ In Metz-Göckel, S., Morokvasic, M. and Münst, S. (eds) Migration and Mobility in an Enlarged Europe: A Gender Perspective, 2008) stresses the major role of ‘regularisations’ of domestic migrant workers in Italy, in contrast to the ‘undocumented’ German reality; officially, in Germany there are only 148 thousand domestic workers (90% of them German!), but surveys indicate that 4 million German families use domestic labour: assuming that it is just for one day a week, there must be 800,000 domestic cleaners, without even counting the large, not much more formal sector of business cleaning. So domestic cleaning is a private and public tabu, something which Germans pretend it doesn’t exist. In other countries it is a more public topic: in 1990 for a while the most debated issue in the Italian Left was not the fall of the Berlin Wall, but, following an article by Valentino Parlato, whether it's acceptable for communists to have domestic cleaners. By the way, research is discovering the issue: in Italy much has been written by Asher Colombo and by Bianca Beccalli (who already forty years ago had written a paper on cleaning and socialist division of labour...), in the UK interesting work is being carried out by Nick Clark at London Metropolitan University.
Indeed, Polanska herself works illegally. She deals with her guilt for not paying tax by doing some volunteer cleaning for poor old people, but it is not clear how she deals with insurance and pension - now she is happily married to a German Italian, so I presume that was the solution. But she points to the fact that the real beneficiaries of informal domestic labour are, of course, the employers. She cleans for both families and some businesses (medical practices, restaurants, brothels etc), and nobody would employ her if she issued a receipt. Among her employers there are lawyers, police officers, journalists, politicians: all require maximal secrecy (indeed, every now and then a politician is found using undocumented migrant labour – usually it is those who in public oppose immigration...).
For me, the attraction of the book is somewhere else, at the intersection between sociology of work and sociology of migration. Domestic cleaning is a complex ‘labour process’, and the strategies of employer control and employee survival are particularly varied. Exploitation through late- and underpaying is frequent, given the vulnerability of female undocumented workers. It is also a profession at the lowest end of social prestige, and Polanska has something to say about the German expression “meine Putzfrau” (“my cleaning lady” - it could be worse: in Italy “la mia Filippina” is commonly used, even when the worker is not even from the Philippines). And she tells about lack of humanity, for instance about never being offered a drink, even on hot days, when the employing family can ostentatiously sip their cold drinks while looking at her sweating.
In terms of migration, the book is ambiguous. Polanska decided to leave Poland at 19, suddenly, knowing only one word of German (the ominous “Fenster”, window), answering a newspaper ad for au pairs in Germany (the au pair job will turn out to be extreme exploitation: a year of starving with little or no pay), and rationalises it retrospectively by writing: “About my country I can simply say: there is no perspective. A young person can’t do anything in Poland. Many of my friends have qualifications and earn €350 monthly – when they are lucky”. Which is quite an absurd statement about a so-called “economic tiger” where average pay is nearly €1,000/month (gross), especially given that Poznan is better than average. But it is understandable: in Poland there are actually lots of chances, but very unevenly distributed. Otherwise Polanska’s mother and sister would not have followed her to Germany, a few years later, to take up the same profession.
The author also tells about German prejudice against Poles: “do you have Coca Cola?” is the lightest, abuse for alleged inclination to stealing and prostitution the heaviest. Even her apparently well-educated German neighbours, when they find any rubbish in the communal areas of the apartment bloc, deliver it to her door, because logically only foreigners could leave rubbish around. But on Polish-German stereotypes, rather than this book I’d recommend the recent comedy film “Hochzeitspolka” (by Lars Jessen, 2010), on a Polish-German wedding where a century of “misunderstandings” explode. Polanska comes from a quite typical Polish conservative family. Among other things, in Germany she discovers that “homosexuals are normal people – really normal people”. Her background explains some of her criticism of Germans: dressing up and make-up is for her normal, traditional Polish femininity, but Germans despise it as a sign of being ‘easy’ (on this topic see Women Migrants from East to West, by Passerini, Lyon, Capussotti and Laliotou, 2007). And her repeated anger for not being offered drinks is normal coming for a country where the first sentence you hear when you enter a house or an office is always “coffee or tea?”.
Despite the stories of sexual harassment and exploitation, this book might offer a rather ‘rosy’ picture of immigration and cleaning: Polanska earns her €10/hour, is married to a German Italian, conducts a rather normal life. It is difficult to predict if the book legitimates, or criticises the current state. In any case, it ‘humanises’ an unspoken category of people, and opens a tabu. It is a positive compensation to other recent German bestsellers which are openly xenophobic: Sarrazin’s Deutschland schafft sich ab and, most horribly, Kein Schwarz. Kein Rot. Kein Gold: Armut für alle im “Lustigen Migrantenstadl” by Udo Ulfkotte, while it is in line with literary fashion: the last German Book Prize shortlisting was dominated by authors with immigration background. And as cleaning still is a 99% feminised profession, it is a good book to comment on today, International Women's Day.
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.