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May 06, 2011

National questions, 2011

While in Québec two years ago, I watched the documentary movie Questions Nationales, comparing three ‘failed’ independent nations: Québec, Cataluña and Scotland (I confess sympathy for all three – and my wife is half-Scottish). It was clear in the public and among my Quebecer friends that the odd one among the three was Scotland: it was not serious enough. Scotland, unlike Québec and Cataluña, is not distinguished by that most important social divide that is language. It hasn’t been independent, nor fought for it, for centuries (now: Québec has never been independent, but at least it was separate 250 years ago – and it had space for some terrorist independentists in the 1970s; Cataluña was virtually independent at some stage in the violent 1930s). Paradoxically, Scotland was the only one with quite clear a constitutional right to independence – but that just proved that it was not serious: they are allowed to split because everybody knows they would never do it.

Robert The BruceFast forward to 2011. Last month, in an informal referendum on independence, just 21% of Catalans bothered to vote (91% voted yes). A couple of months earlier, in the Cataluña elections, the separatist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya had seen its vote halved, to the advantage of the more moderate CiU and of fringe parties. Last Monday, the separatist Bloc Québécois was all but wiped out in the Canadian Federal elections: down from 47 to 4 seats. By contrast, yesterday, the Scottish National Party, won a surprising absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament. This opens the way for them to call a referendum, for 2014 or 2015, on independence. So Scotland is actually proving more serious on the independence route than the other two.

In truth, Scottish independence sounds less dramatic and attracts more smiles than anger, mostly because, economically, they are the poorer bit (the oil is running out and it is even disputed whether it will fall into the Scottish national waters once a border is drawn). It reminds of Slovakia, whose independence was fomented by the Czechs more than by the Slovaks themselves.

What is striking in all these cases is the volatility of separatist vote. OK, vote for separatist parties is not the same as vote in an actual independence referendum (in the last Québec one, in 1995, the Yes reached 49%). But still, only two months ago the SNP was seen as secure loser: after all, its main message for years had been that independence would allow Scotland to achieve the same economic results as Ireland and Iceland – not a clever thing to say right now. Two months later, people voted for them, just in order to protest against all Westminster parties. If on separatism people can change opinion with the weather (particularly changeable in Scotland...), then this is clearly no longer the serious, life or death issue it was for Garibaldi – or for Croats and Slovenians a couple of years ago. In today’s world, and especially in the EU, national independence matters little and it can depend on the mood. People can switch between multiple allegiances. The best example was Barcelona, last 11th of July. In the morning a million people demonstrated for independence. In the evening, a million people (who knows if the same or not) celebrated Spain’s World Cup victory. Which actually could suggest a good compromise: a time-share independence - Catalans during the day, and Spaniards at night.Pick your own

In such a state, the real fomenters of separatism are those who take it too seriously and provoke it, such as the conservative Constitutional Court of Spain rejecting parts of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy, otherwise approved by 95% of Catalans in a referendum. Yesterday, the same Court very narrowly (a 5-6 vote split) resisted the temptation of banning from local elections the Basque independentist Bildu, a decision which would have only radicalised independentists there and closed the political channels (it would be similar tooutlawing Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland).

As proof of how unserious independence has become, there is the debate on what name the UK should take if Scotland left (Canada and Spain have the same problem: their current names would make no sense anymore, and there are no easy substitutes). “Disunited Kingdom” and “Little Britain” look like the best options...


March 26, 2011

March for the Alternative

march28.jpgVery big demo against the cuts to the public spending in London today - 2 hours walking backwards through the marching crowd until I found my trade union.

Will it affect the government? Of course it won't. Not even the bigger demonstrations in France last autumn affected their government and their cuts (there were French veterans from those demonstrations in London today). That's not the point. The point is that such an event - the first such demonstration of social issues since those against the Poll Tax 21 years ago - will give strength and courage to workers and local communities fighting against redundacies and closures around the country. And that it forces politicians to take position: Ed Miliband, who owes the election to Labour leader to the trade unions, had to come out clearly today, after months of inconclusiveness, against the cuts. Let's see what happens - and for the moment, the pictures.


March 23, 2011

Route Irish

Movie image
Title:
Route Irish
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars

Two weeks ago I went to pre-screening of Route Irish, followed by a Question & Answer meeting with the Director, Ken Loach. Ken Loach is more popular in Italy and France than he is in the UK: apparently in Nuneaton, the town near Coventry where he comes from, they don’t even know who he is. A movie like The Navigators was a ticket box success in Italy, but wasn’t even screened in cinemas in the UK. If Ken Loach turned up at a cinema in Italy I can imagine the crowds – but at the Arts Centre the cinema wasn’t even full...

With 'Route Irish' Loach goes back to serious, heavy and very political themes, after the 'Looking for Eric' football comedy. In this case, the theme is the War in Iraq. If the sort of theme is not surprising, the genre is: this is Ken Loach’s first thriller. It may not have the best screenwriting and the most surprising plot, but it is a good effort nonetheless. It’s the story of Fergus, an Iraq veteran, himself disturbed by the experience (echoes of the Dear Hunter and even of Rambo), trying to explain and avenge (successfully) the death in Baghdad of his best friend Frankie, and come to terms with it (unsuccessfully). Loach’s style is evident in the careful neorealist directing: all actors from Liverpool, and not told about the plot in advance, so that they experience it ‘in real time’. Except some scenes filmed in Jordan (for Baghdad), the story is played in Liverpool, which is a good thing. Loach’s neorealism is perfect on the Britain he knows intimately, but is distorted by ideological idealization as soon as he chooses a foreign subject, whether Nicaragua (Carla’s Song), Spain (‘Land and Freedom’) or even Ireland (‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’); even immigrants tend to be idealised (Bread & Roses; It's A Free World). So I went to the cinema expecting an idealisation of Iraq, but fortunately there is little of it, even though the few Iraqi characters are all, predictably, ‘goodies’. The movie is indeed well researched, based on a number of interviews with Iraq veterans (interesting documentation is in included in the film’s book).

It’s the political content of Route Irish which is most important. The movie is mostly about the privatization of war, whereby corporations, and in particular private security companies, make huge profits on the bodies of the local populations and of working-class lads with no other employment opportunities. An important sub-theme is torture, dealt with in the most gripping, and technically most difficult, scene. This portrays, for the first time in a fiction movie, waterboarding – a torture used by US forces in Iraq, and still defended by Dick Cheney. Let’s just say that even if on 'Route Irish's stage waterboarding was obviously partial, very short and not coercive, the actor suffered panic attacks for weeks later. The scene is cleverly introduced into the plot, with the effect of condemning torture in an absolute way, even when it is the ‘good’ side to use it.

‘Route Irish’ ends without a ‘way out’: the system is all corrupt. In the debate after the screening, asked if he expects his movies to change people, Loach replied “oh, no way films can change people: if they did, we would have all become cow-boys.’ He was also questioned about Libya, and he expressed predictable scepticism at a possible intervention (it was before the UN Resolution), which would have been in the interest, again, of oil corporations. At this point Loach may be frankly be too simplistic.

To an Italian, and to me in particular, this movie has a strong echo. Frankie is killed, under unclear circumstances, on ‘Route Irish’, the ‘most dangerous road on earth’, leading to Baghdad Airport. Exactly on that road, on the 4th of March 2005, Nicola Calipari, Italian intelligence officer, was shot dead by American soldiers. He was heading to the airport with the journalist Giuliana Sgrena, who had been released only 20 minutes earlier after 4 weeks as hostage of Iraqi fighters. The circumstances of the killing have never been explained: under heavy pressure from the Pentagon, especially via foreign minister Fini, the Italian prosecutors had to drop the case. Giuliana worked for Il manifesto, with which I collaborated myself at the time, and the weeks of her kidnapping and then Calipari’s death were for me an unbelievable anguish. She told her story in detail in her 'Fuoco Amico' (Friendly fire) book. There is no mention of the Sgrena-Calipari case in the film’s book, but Loach knew the case of course, and given his popularity in Italy, I can’t believe the reference is accidental. Yet I did not have the time to ask about its meaning during the debate: so let’s wait until the movie reaches the Italian cinemas.

On a lighter note: Ken Loach supports the idea of his football club, Bath City, to offer 80%-discounted tickets to Polish fans. Some Bath City fans have complained against this ‘preferential treatment’ of foreigners, not understanding that introductory offers make perfect economic sense. Even if Polish football is at quite a dire level, I wonder how many Poles will really take the offer: Bath City play in something like the Sixth league, and Poles in the UK are more likely to go to see Speedway (I have seen many Poles at Coventry Bees’ matches, without the need for special offers). But if they do, Ken Loach should take the camera to the terraces and document what happens.


March 15, 2011

George Shaw's Tile Hill paintings: my neighbourhood or the universal English working class estate?

A 4-hour train journey across England to go from an anonymous post-war working class estate in Coventry to Newcastle... to see paintings of the same anonymous post-war working class estate. That sounds like a great week-end plan.

BalticGeorge Shaw’s ‘The Sly and Unseen Day’ exhibition at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art is worth it. And Tile Hill is worth it too.

Shaw made his paintings over the 1996-2010 period, on the basis of an archive of thousands of photographs he took around the Tile Hill estate, where he grew up. He took many of the photos with his late father, who had come to Tile Hill from Ireland, like many others. Painting from pictures, rather than from real life, reduces the light’s dynamic range (much detail is lost in shadows) and flattens the perspective, but also allows painting at strange times and under bad weather conditions – especially rain – while keeping an indirect individual link to the place. Shaw uses an unfashionable, humble, almost weird material: Humbrol enamel paint. This reminds of simple craftwork in the shed, and gives a very simplified and artificial colouring: more industrial than natural. The perspective and composition are also very simple – as from a child’s eye.

Subject of the paintings (owned by various collections including Tate, Deutsche Bank - some are of Warwick's Mead Gallery) are Tile Hill corners that mean something to the painter: a phone box no longer used; the school entrance; his house; old garages; what remains of a demolished pub; a path in the woods; a subway. There is no human figure in any painting, nothing happens. You have to think to interpret what sort of life could have been there, why a certain path, a certain boarded window may be important. No easy symbolism, but a very strong statement of what art is about, and where it comes from.

To see the exhibition coming from Tile Hill makes a double impression. The first instinct is to locate the apparently anonymous locations: where exactly is that garage, that corner, that tree? Then, there is the reaction that it is quite unfair, the paintings focussing on the abandoned, decadent parts in an apparently depressing manner. But after these neighbourhood-provincial reactions, a further look discovers all the depth of artistic creation. The neo-Romantic references, especially with the suburban landscapes echoing, maybe mocking the Pre-Raphaelites. The poetic references to Larkin on Coventry, where 'my childhood was unspent' - and 'it is not the place's fault - nothing, like something happens anywhere'. The historical references, from old trees that were there before the estate, to peeping holes in a fence, reminders of Coventry’s legendary Peeping Tom from the medieval Lady Godiva story – in Shaw’s words ‘a classic British story – sex, class and realism'. Indeed, Shaw is a ‘classist’ artist, despising the ideological, un-experiential ‘higher-class’ art and affirming his working class roots strongly, even though avoiding political language, also in the way he talks about his work. The paintings are intimate – but in their artistic content they are also universal.

Tile Hill is a good place to reflect over time, memory, decadence. It is right in the middle of England and could be seen as representative of all working class estates in the country, but that's not factually precise: the place has its individual history. It was built for the ‘new’ working class, largely from Ireland, for the factories nearby - 'everyone either worked at Standard or at Massey-Ferguson', remembers Shaw. (According to the Acorn classification my street’s typical demographic definition is ‘large families with low level of education’: my house is an outlier, with a popolation of 2 and 100% PhD-level education). It was a 'new town', after the old Coventry had been destroyed by the 1940 bombing. Some of it was intended as progressive, innovative urbanism; especially the Jardine Crescent estate, a circle of brutalist housing blocks encircling a common and community services: you can still tell the utopia of such planning. Shaw paints the burnt or razed pubs, the abandoned playgrounds or football pitches, the boarded houses. Indeed, since the 1980s Tile Hill has suffered serious decline, like most of Coventry (1980s Coventry, and Warwick University, are portrayed in a sweet-sour sauce in the fine short novel by Jonathan Coe, A Touch of Love). The factories have gone and Tile Hill is the seventh poorest of 230 parishes in Coventry. In some regards the decline goes on: the Irish club where I used to go to watch football, attached to the Catholic Church and Catholic school where Shaw grew up, has just closed down, killed by the smoking ban and by cheap supermarket booze. However, something also develops on the ashes. On Jardine Crescent, on the place of desolate prefabs painted by Shaw, there are now an impressive Youth Centre, a nice library, a new health centre. The old craftsmanship of Shaw’s enamel paint has not disappeared, and on the same Jardine Crescent survives a fantastic family bike shop. The woods are being managed and kept well - one point on which Tile Hill differs from the average estate is the amount of parks and woodland. It is a continuous fight against destruction: the library is at risk thanks to the vandalic cuts of the Tories. Some regeneration is replacing services (Tile Hill college) and social housing with more anonymous middle-class housing, although there is still no systematic speculation-driven effort at ‘gentrification’, as for instance at London’s Heygate.

OuseburnNewcastle, vibrant and friendly northern city with its bars, its arty scene in regenerated industrial Ouseburn, its spectacular river and its labour movement traditions (the Jarrow Crusade) is an appropriate setting for this arty celebration of the quintessential, but actually unique, English working class estate.

Postscript. The train journey back was disrupted, as usual given the state of British railways. Trains were not running to Tile Hill, because no London Midland’s train drivers volunteered for Sunday work. The union is in dispute after the company dropped the special Sunday pay rate. Even if Sunday work is voluntary, the company says that the refusal to work amounts to a strike and refused to provide replacement services or to refund my ticket. But it is not an official strike and after losing the patience of its employees London Midland is on the path to lose the patience of passengers.


November 26, 2010

On university fees

I signed, with a large number of colleagues, an open letter to last Monday's Guardian against the tripling of university fees in the UK (to 9,000 pounds/year - yes, 10,500 euros: ten-thousand-five-hundred-euros):

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/nov/22/we-will-fight-with-students

Just a couple of additional personal thoughts, from a snowy Berlin where university education is free - but not bad at all.

On an economic note. All government calculations that university degrees make you earn fantastillions more, and therefore students should pay for them, are based on past data from times when very few (an elite) got university degrees. Now that university students approach 50% of their age group, by definition their future earnings cannot be, in most cases, much above average.

Anyway, the idea that a degree is worth fantastillions is immediately contradicted by the fact that fees will be payable starting from annual earnings of £19,000 (at today prices), which is well below average.

Even more, education is one of those fields where individual economic behaviour creates suboptimal results; if all is counted on money, all will choose the degrees with the highest expected earning, and as an effect they will overcrowd them and earn less. In addition, it neglects all positive externalities of university education, especially in sciences and humanities. A market of degrees is just a bad idea.

From the above, it follows that overinflating the prices of UK degrees is just a speculative bubble based on the irrational belief that those pieces of papers will make you lots of money. Can't we learn anything from previous speculation bubbles?

On a social note. The idea that working-class students will not be discouraged, to somebody who has interviewed hundreds of workers, is totally ludicrous. The psychological barriers to university access are huge for working-class kids: why should they now opt for a risky university route involving either failure or a £27,000 debt, instead of a safer job route involving no debt and the appreciation of peers/family?

On a comparative note. The much-invoked example of Swedish drastic budget-cutting in the early 1990s actually ring-fenced higher education. And anyway, Sweden had a very large public budget: you can have a more drastic diet if you have large fat reserves. The anomaly of the UK is not that public expenditure is too high, but that taxes are too low (same for Ireland by the way).

Finally, on a positive note. Maybe these mad fees will at least achieve something nothing else has done: raise British kids' interest in foreign languages. So they can then get a good degree on the continent, save 27,000 quid (or nearly that much), get unique life-enriching experience - and in the meanwhile even enjoy some sunshine, beach or skiing.


September 18, 2010

Ratzinger flies in and I fly out

It happens that tomorrow morning I’ll take off from Birmingham more or less at the same time as Pope Benedict XVI lands. When his visit was announced I just saw it as a curiosity (not much happens in the West Midlands) and a very moderate hope: this reactionary Pope, I thought, could learn one thing or two from the relatively progressive English Catholic Church, and from British tolerance and multiculturalism. In turn, the Pope’s sober socio-economic thought, if not leftwing (Serge Latouche offers an interesting analysis in this month’s Monde Diplomatique) would cause no harm in the context of London’s financial madness. Neither would his defence of migrants.

I was largely wrong in my forecasts, as usual. Tolerance and multiculturalism are among the things I appreciate most in Britain, but suddenly, the country has also manifested an underbelly of sectarian anti-Catholicism that I only knew from history books. And it’s not just rev. Paisley. The Independent, Daily Telegraph, Guardian have been full of angry criticism for weeks, even a demonstration (if, eventually, rather small) has been organised against the visit. I can’t stand any form of religious proselitism or intolerance, but among them all, I find atheist fanaticism the weirdest one: why do they care? While there’s plenty to criticise about Ratzinger, the protests and opposition are so out of proportion and I believe have no precedents in other countries – even if in other countries there would be much sounder reasons to protest. It is very strange to hear people who generally, while provocative, are thoughtful and interesting (Richard Dawkins, Julie Burchill, Polly Toynbee...) fall into intolerant rants that match those in New York against the so-called ‘9/11 mosque’: ‘force of evil’, ‘oppression', ‘most criminal organisation on earth’, 'Hitlerjugend'... Come on, that's the Tea Party with Obama.

In Britain, the Catholic Church has no political power, and it was even repressed or discriminated against until the day before yesterday. I could try to understand the oxymoron of ‘secular puritanism’ if it came from a country consistently secular, such as France. But Britain still has bishops in the House of Lords and an unelected monarch who is also head of a Church (and the fact that she says nothing controversial is a weird justification: I prefer to pay to listen to something controversial than absolute nothingness).

I have tried to understand the criticism, which should not have been difficult given that I dislike so many of Ratzinger’s ideas, but I found it little convincing. A lot is said about contraception. But Ratzinger’s ideas on this are not a dogma. 50% of priests and 70% of lay Catholics do not subscribe to it, including Cardinal Martini who was Ratzinger’s main challenger in the last conclave. And anyway, given that the Catholic Church does not (anymore) force people to follow its preaching, there’s something incoherent in proclaiming free choice, but banning the refusal of contraception. And this is even more the case with the AIDS in Africa argument. HIV infection is actually much lower in Catholic Sub-Saharian African countries than in non-Catholic ones, so if there is a link, it is between Catholic preaching and increased HIV infection among those who don't follow it. There’s actually something sinister in this obsession with condoms, that is the propagating idea that world’s poverty and AIDS are actually ‘their fault’ because they don’t use contraception, and not a socio-economic problem rooted in an unjust world system. But women’s reproductive health and AIDS have socio-economic causes, rather than moral ones as both fanatic Catholics and fanatic anti-Catholics believe. Take the most theocratic country on earth, Iran: despite the ayatollah, births per woman fell from 7 to 2 (European level) in twentyfive years, thanks to economic and social development (the state also introduced some family planning, but still under ayatollah's guidance). On this point I side with Germaine Greer: patronising Thirld World's women is neither useful nor feminist. If we care about child poverty and AIDS we have to reach to our wallet rather than shouting at the pope.

There’s then the issue of cost for the taxpayer. That a country that dreams to remain a nuclear power and keep Trident cannot afford state visits is peculiar. In Italy we pay the bill when the queen comes, and even when anybody in her extended family comes – prince Charles much too often – even if the majority of us consider the idea of monarchy offensive. That's called international relations. And anyway, in pure Thatcherite style, in this case Britain has obtained a ‘rebate’ and large part of the bill is taken up by Catholics, so what’s still to complain about?

The most serious argument against the Pope’s visit is, of course, the child abuse scandals. The issue had to be raised, and it needs much deeper consideration from the Church, the point being not just the 0.5% priests who are paedophile, but the sort of authority they exploited, and the culture of institutional omertà that protected them. Yet raising the issue is a reason in favour of the visit, not against it. And this pope has listened much more - if still not enough - than the previous one, who seemed not to understand the issue. Within weeks from election, Ratzinger started a number of investigations, the most important one on the Legion of Christ. So arresting him for ‘crimes against humanity’ as Dawking asks sounds out of proportion. If we have to speak of crimes against humanity, who invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, the Vatican? Once Tony Blair and the queen are in jail we can see if the pope should join them.

Yet this is probably another lesson from this 2 years around Europe: beware models and idealisation. Just as ‘socialdemocratic’ Sweden is not so socialdemocratic (blog of the 14th July), tolerant England is not so tolerant.


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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