Reading in German: The Ungrateful Stranger
This is a book by a Czech writer who fled to Switzerland with her family as a teenager, during the brutal reprisals following the Prague Spring in 1968. But it is also the story of asylum seekers everywhere, of just how welcome they are made to feel, how grateful they are expected to be, how they cope with major cultural differences, how they learn (or don’t) to build new lives and new identities for themselves. Part novel, part memoir, it is written in a very candid way, showing not only the disappointments and discriminations of immigrant life, but also the naivety and sometimes mistaken obstinacy of the new arrival. Interwoven with the personal story of cultural adaptation of the young girl, we also have little vignettes of new immigrants and their misunderstandings with the social workers, the medical profession or the local authorities. The narrator has now integrated into Swiss society and acts as an interpreter for these people. These scenes are often deeply moving, sometimes quite funny, always highlighting the vulnerability of those who flee impossible conditions at home and try so hard to make something of their lives in a new country, yet fear losing their cultural identity. The host country and its people may be well-intentioned, but also often comes across as arrogant or patronising.
Irena Brežná has a style which is at once wryly humorous, indignant and yet also poetic. In the very first scene she describes how Swiss bureaucracy strips her of all the little wings and turrets (diacritical signs) from her name, as well as its feminine ending in -a.
‘You don’t need this fiddle-faddle here.’
He slashed my round, feminine ending and gave me the surname of my father and brother. The two of them just sat there speechless and allowed me to get crippled. What was I supposed to do with this bald, masculine name? I froze.
Then she is asked what she believes in (a scene which is repeated with another child at the end of the book).
‘A better world.’
‘Then you’re in the right place, little girl. Welcome!’
This was a very timely reminder of what it means to ‘become Swiss’, the week after Switzerland voted for curbing the rights of foreign workers. But I hope it will be translated into other languages, for wider circulation in a Europe of so-called free movement, where certain countries or ethnic groups are still maligned and political rhetorical fever runs high against foreign nationals who come to ‘take our jobs’ but also at the same time ‘claim all our benefits’. A painful book for both immigrants and their hosts, but one which deserves to spark deeper, more authentic conversations.