#20BooksofSummer Nos. 3 and 4: Eastern towns and dead end worlds

Bucharest in the 1970s, photo from Facebook group dedicated to old and new photos of Bucharest. For more pictures, go to the website bucurestiivechisinoi.ro

At this rate, I’m not sure I will finish 20 books this summer, or at least not read and review them, but I have read two more, and they both are set in Eastern Europe during Communist times.

Sarah Armstrong: The Starlings of Bucharest (Sandstone Press)

Set in Bucharest and Moscow in 1975. This is the story of a somewhat clueless young journalist, Ted Walker, who has escaped from the hardship of fishing life in Harwich and set off for the bright lights of London (albeit, living in an insalubrious bedsit in Plumstead). He is sent by the editor of his second-rate film review magazine to interview a famous Romanian film director in Bucharest and then later to an international film festival in Moscow, and becomes a target for the local security services.

Although it has some tense and dangerous moments, it is far less a spy thriller and more of a coming of age story, as Ted starts to realise what he is and isn’t capable of, and what people want from him. Coming from a humble background, without much education, he has been bruised by the class system in England and the Russians correctly surmise that he might be more sympathetic to their cause. Ted realises that, no matter how much he aspires occasionally to be part of the action, he is in fact far better at ‘watching it all unfold’. Above all, he is flattered by the attention that all of these mysterious bilingual people seem to be paying him: ‘I never knew I had anything to give, anything anyone wanted. It made me want to say yes without asking what it was.’

Quite an enjoyable read, and a more realistic look at the mundane details of the world of spying and the Cold War in the 1970s, more Le Carre than James Bond. However, I’m not quite sure what was the point of setting the first part in Bucharest and even giving the book that title, as most of the action takes place in Moscow. Was it purely to have another setting to describe? At that point in time, the Soviet and Romanian spy networks were definitely NOT collaborating, Romania was viewed with suspicion by the Soviets for its non-alignment with the other Communist states, while Ceausescu was still very much the darling of the Western leaders for opposing the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring, signing agreements with the then European Community, visiting the Queen and Jimmy Carter in 1978 and so on.

From someone coming from Britain in the mid 1970s, with the oil crisis, strikes, unemployment, Bucharest can’t have seemed as grey and poor as all that. The food crisis was not yet as great as in the 1980s, clothes were plentiful and cheap (so the story of Vasile the guide craving Ted’s trousers sounds bizarre), although I agree the architecture of hastily put up blocks of flats was pretty horrible. Sorry to be picky, but if there are readers who point out that the train no. 45823 has a black undercarriage instead of dark blue, I think I can get slightly riled by inaccurate historical details.

Cristina Sandu: The Union of Synchronised Swimmers (Scribe UK)

Originally written in Finnish and translated into English by the author herself, this is a novella describing the starting point of a group of six girls who decide to form a synchronised swimming team, and their subsequent lives after they illegally leave their country during an international competition. The country of the girls is never named (nor officially recognised) other than ‘The Near Side of the River’ after the fall of the Republic, but for anybody familiar with the region, it sounds remarkably like Transnistria, with Moldova being the Far Side of the River, the ‘correct’ side, the place ‘where they can get a new passport and membership to a sports club that is internationally recognised’, sport being the ‘fragile link between two countries looking away from each other’.

I particularly enjoyed the lyricism in the parts of the story describing the girls’ childhood and their determination to become competitive swimmers, to escape from their boring lives and jobs at the cigarette factory, in a country where ‘for most of the year, the men were gone. They grabbed any kind of work they managed to get in a neighbouring country. They sent letters and packages home, and came to visit when they had enough money or their homesickness had become too great. Only the women stayed. They kept life going. They worked the land, fed and slaughtered the animals, raised the children. They ensured that the metal factory filled the sky with red smoke. They prepared the cigarettes… to be shipped far away, by land or by sea, to places they could only dream of.’

These descriptions (written in italics) were interspersed with accounts of the present-day – the experience of the six girls, now grown women, as immigrants in different countries – Finland, France, Italy, California, Saint Martin in the Caribbean – or returning ‘home’ many years later. The exploitation and subtle (or not so subtle) discrimination) they face elsewhere, but the certainty that there is no turning back, that they can no longer fit into the place they left behind either.

Much is implied or left unsaid, so I can understand the frustrations of readers who were expecting this to be more of a novel. It is, in fact, a kaleidoscope of images, impressions, vignettes from the women’s lives, the people they encounter, the conversations that mark them, a novella in flash one might say, and the gaps signify the distance between the six girls who once used to be so close. This worked upon me as a prose poem, although you shouldn’t expect something purely dreamy and lyrical: there is a lot of anger and sharp social observation too. Perhaps if you go in expecting something more like Jenny Offill’s Weather or Dept. of Speculation, you would be less disappointed. I think I know why the author chose to focus on the ‘after-lives’ of all six of the characters – to emphasise some of the univerals of the immigrant experience – but that does feel like we only get to know any of them in a very limited way, in a book that is that short.

The view of the Near Side of the River, the real-life Rybnitsa in Transnistria, town of metallurgy, and the river which might be where the girls learn to swim.

Raymond Antrobus: To Sweeten Bitter (poetry review)

Author picture from raymondantrobus.com

It was poignant and entirely appropriate to dwell in the poetry pamphlet To Sweeten Bitter by Raymond Antrobus on Father’s Day (published by Outspoken Press). For this is a very personal exploration of the father/son relationship, a more ambiguous one than we are used to reading about in the standard gushing outbursts of sentiment on this day.

Then, waking up to yet more tragic news, this time about a terrorist attack on Muslims in London, this slim volume of poetry remains appropriate, for it has a resonance well beyond the personal. This is also poetry about finding one’s cultural identity, about trying to belong and being found wanting, about never quite fitting in, never knowing how to describe one’s self, trying to come to terms with one’s heritage.

Half-caste, half mule, house slave – Jamaican British.

Light skin, straight male, privileged – Jamaican British…

In school I fought a boy in the lunch hall – Jamaican.

At home, told Dad I hate dem, all dem Jamaicans – I’m British.

He laughed, said you cannot love sugar and hate your sweetness…

In Look, There’s a Black Man, Touch Him the poet captures not only his father’s experience of coming to England, but touches on broader issues of immigration and race, people ‘turn me away for showing up the wrong colour’. The men in Scratched Light miss their home and communities, struggle to share their bewilderment and loneliness with others who have been displaced, perhaps even build a transient community of the lost and grieving in the shadow of the Southbank security guards. Not all of the poems are wistful, however. There is humour but also drama and menace in Miami Airport, with the staccato questioning by the border guards: ‘why didn’t I see anyone that looked like you when I was in England?’

Yet when the Jamaican British son returns to the land of his father, he feels just as unsettled and unwanted. He tries to shake off the tourist image. He falls for the misguided idea that following roads marked on a map (with ridiculous English names) will help in Jamaica, where ‘the road itself rebelled and gave up making way for those who’ve forgotten what swung in this wind’. The guilt of the Empire is even stronger in the more overtly political poem Two Days and Two Nights in Kisumu, Kenya, where the poet has gone to teach poetry but fears that English is not the right language with which to approach these children for

our language has not come from the future,

it has crawled from a cave

and rowed to so many shores

that we speak in crashed waves and trade winds.

Ultimately, however, the personal poems are the most powerful in this anything but straightforward account of a father’s legacy, a father lost to dementia quite a few years before death. The collection starts and ends on the hospital bed, with a heart giving out, a son holding hands with a father who has not always been there for him, trying to find forgiveness in his heart. This is a recognisable situation for so many, that there is a danger of reverting to hackneyed sentiments, but Antrobus injects freshness and real grittiness into it. Dementia ‘simplified a complicated man’, confers warmth where perhaps there was none initially. Sometimes the expression of pain is uncomplicated, as in the simple but not at all simplistic short poem When He Died:

I told no one

how old he was

in case

his death

seemed too

inevitable…

More often, there are complicated and contradictory strands of feeling woven in. The title poem To Sweeten Bitter describes the paradox lying at the very heart of this relationship, the deeper grooves a father makes in our lives, the years of hurt and misunderstanding and the attempt to sugarcoat situations. The later poems are clearer in describing an absent father, an abusive father, the threats and shaming he stooped to, that forgiveness was only possible because ‘he promised me one day he was going to die.’ There is also recognition of a mother’s sacrifice, compensating for an absent father. In What Is Possible, we find the touching image of her sitting up all night to thread jewellery to sell in the market, with only the TV for company, while her son complains about the TV disturbing him. Yet as he lies in his bed, he dreams he will fly and grow too big for his bed, he understands the safety and security that his mother has given him, the feeling that all possibilities are still open to him.

The video below is the poet performing his own Sestina for My Father, which is not in the present volume, but deserves to be mentioned alongside it.

Yet this slender book reminds us that, for all the imperfections, for all of the pain, instead of yearning for the father we wish we’d had, we should attempt to understand and forgive the one we were given. Whether present or absent, they shape us far more than we can imagine or accept

where someone I love is the shape

of the missing thing.

 

 

 

German Lit Month: crime and humour

german-2015

You know I like crime fiction and you know I like German literature, so of course I couldn’t resist sneaking in a few crime novels for German Literature Month. This time I look at two novels which purport to bring crime and comedy together, even though English speakers like to pretend that the Germans lack a sense of humour.

KayankayaJakob Arjouni: Ein Mann, ein Mord (One Man, One Murder)

The archetypical hard-boiled yet compassionate German detective with a Turkish name (and looks) is back in this third outing by the wonderful Arjouni. Arjouni really hits his stride in this one: Kayankaya has become much more thoughtful, mature and empathetic in this book, whilst also retaining his rebellious streak, sheer bloody-mindedness and vicious sense of humour.

Weidenbusch is a bright round ball of a middle-aged man who ‘probably irons his underwear and thinks that pink glasses and colourful watches would give him a personality’. He hires Kayankaya to find the love of his life, Sri Dao, a young Thai woman he has been trying to rescue from a strip joint. She was promised false papers which would enable her to settle in Germany, but has now disappeared, and her boyfriend thinks she might have been kidnapped. Kayankaya starts combing first the bars and brothels of Frankfurt, then the asylum seekers’ detention centres, the deportation unit at the airport and other government offices. Along the way, he encounters squalor, desperation, corruption, party politics and entrepreneurial criminals who do not shy away from making money out of the most vulnerable in society.

Unsavoury characters abound in this (oddly timely) look at immigrants and refugees falling off the radar in the underbelly of Frankfurt. Kayankaya meets each racist aside with his trademark sarcasm and turning of tables. Arjouni is not afraid of handling big themes with clear-eyed, unsentimental storytelling, wit, but above all understanding.

They’d fled. They’d gone halfway round the world with just two cases. They’d written applications, been turned down, renewed their applications, been turned down again, were housed in stables or ten to a room. They’d hidden and lived without papers and now they wanted to get some false ones. They’d managed to find 3000 Marks out of nowhere, had tried everything, just to be able to say: tomorrow I can sleep as long as I like… But they don’t have a chance. Refused means refused. The refugee “in whose culture torture is a common method for questioning”. The refugee ‘who would not have to fear any repercussions upon his return to his home country, if only he had not been politically active – and he was fully aware of the risks he was taking’. And of course the ‘economic migrant’, regarded as a vagrant when he stands in front of our German supermarkets, as if hunger and poverty for three quarters of the world’s population is a basic human right… Sooner or later, they’ll find them all and put them on the nearest plane. [my translation]

MorgueJutta Profijt: Morgue Drawer Four (transl. Erik Macki)

I have a faint suspicion that Profijt may have modelled herself on Arjouni in this mad caper of a crime novel (shortlisted for the Glauser Prize). I rather liked the set-up, although I struggle to see how it could win any literary prizes.

Sascha (who prefers to be called Pascha) is a car thief who believes he is too cool for school, but is in fact just a small-time, foul-mouthed criminal. After being pushed off a bridge, he refuses to accept the verdict of accidental death and haunts gentle, hesitant pathologist, Martin Gänsewein, a stickler for detail, whose life is turned upside-down through his ability to communicate with the dead spirit.

The humour was inconsistent, fine at times and a bit forced at others, and I can see how the story might wear thin for a series. A perfectly fun read for a first attempt and a bit different from the usual crime fare, but nothing like Arjouni’s deep humanism and precise style here. Entertainment rather than enlightenment is the purpose here.

 

Julia Franck: West (transl. Anthea Bell)

german-2015

I received this book just in time for German Literature Month, from the fair hands (or post office) of Lizzy herself. Big thanks to Lizzy for a book which left a deep and unsettling impression.

WestI noticed many reviews on Goodreads stating that it was too depressing and bleak, an accusation also levied against Herta MĂĽller, who also handles similar themes. Perhaps the problem is that there is no character readers can fully identify with: each one is flawed, ambiguous, makes us slightly uneasy. We get to hear in alternating chapters from scientist Nelly Senff, who escapes to the West with her two children; Krystyna, a Polish cellist who has given up her music, sold her instrument and moved her whole family to Germany to seek medical treatment for her brother; John Bird, the American CIA agent who hopes to further his career by unearthing Stasi spies; and Hans Pischke, an actor who was a political prisoner back in his native East Germany. Although each is narrated in first person, we never feel we completely understand the motivation of each protagonist. But then we get to see each character through the others’ eyes, which gives an interesting multi-faceted perspective, but also creates a distancing effect.

The daily humiliations and harassment the immigrants have to face, both inside the refugee camp and outside it, are described with blistering realism. The cramped conditions, the parcelling out of unwanted food, babies crying, couples quarrelling, suspicions and accusations of favouritism. In addition to all that, Nelly’s children are horribly bullied at school. There is a painful scene in the hospital with the doctors refusing to believe the son’s account of how he got beaten up, culminating with an even more cringeworthy scene when one of the bullies’ mother brings him to the hospital to apologise to Nelly’s son.

Finally, you also have an additional layer of humiliation from the gender perspective, as Nelly is an attractive young woman, while Krystyna is a fat middle-aged woman, and the men all around them feel entitled to make rude remarks about both. There are many other such memorable scenes, and on the whole the three refugees handle them all with a passivity and resignation which may infuriate some readers, but has probably allowed them to endure so much. Just occasionally, however, they break down and burst out, as Nelly does in the West German interrogation room. Or else they employ the ‘weapons of the weak’, as Hans does by refusing to thank the woman who hands out the weekly rations at the camp because:

I didn’t feel like heightening her sense of self-importance; there was far too much of it in her voice anyway.

This book reminded me of other books about immigration which I have read recently: Americanah and Die undankbare Fremde, which also discuss the heavy burden of expectations on the shoulders of ‘good’ immigrants. The host country expects immigrants to be grateful, fit in, accept everything unquestioningly, remain uncritical of their hosts, smile and be happy.

West German officials certainly don’t come out well from these exchanges. When Hans refuses to cooperate by informing about women who might be engaging in prostitution in the camp, his employment advisor lambasts him:

‘I just don’t get it… here you all are, you arrive without anything, without winter shoes, without a washing machine, without even clothes to put in a washing machine, without a roof over your heads, without a penny in your pockets, let alone a mark, you hold up your hands, you take what you want and turn down what you don’t, you make claims. That’s what you do.’

Author photo from Hochschule Rhein Main
Author photo from Hochschule Rhein Main

Well-meant efforts of help come across as patronising and misguided. The final Christmas party scene at the refugee centre is a perfect example, full of sardonic humour. And that’s what makes this book difficult to read, perhaps, and yet so topical during the current refugee crisis. We in the Western world mean well, yet for scarred and victimised individuals, we can come across as arrogant and ignorant. They then react in unexpected ways, which do not conform to our norms of  acceptable and understandable behaviour. So the misunderstanding, mutual dislike and suspicion grows between us.

How to resolve this? Short of making everyone experience a little of the fear, uncertainty and infantilisation which immigrants often encounter? Well, it will have to be books like this, both fictional and real-life accounts, which will hopefully keep our vein of compassion flowing and our sense of justice forever insatiate.

Side-note: Julia Franck’s family moved to West Germany when she was eight years old, and spent some time in a refugee camp, so this novel is based on personal experiences. I understand some of her other books are far more bleak, but this one had a fierce, scathing humour and sarcasm which made it bearable.

Reading in German: The Ungrateful Stranger

Brezna

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.